10 Ways to Prevent Medical Errors in Back Pain Treatment

Medical errors are the third most common cause of death in the United States, with research claiming that more than 250,000 Americans die annually from medical mistakes (though some studies show as many as 440,000 suffer them).1 No matter how you’re treating your back and neck pain—whether by medication, spine surgery, or other form of pain management—you need to understand your role in preventing medical errors. This article shares 10 tips to boost the safety of your spine care.

Note: This information is not designed to alarm you. Clinicians and health care facilities are continuously exploring and implementing ways to improve patient safety. But patients have a role in preventing medical errors, too.
Couple in consultation with Doctor.Clinicians and health care facilities are continuously exploring and implementing ways to improve patient safety. But patients have a role in preventing medical errors, too.

What Do Medical Errors Look Like?

Some people think medical errors only happen in hospitals, but they can also occur in the doctor's office, in outpatient facilities or clinics, and at the pharmacy. Errors can also be made in the prescribing of medications, in diagnoses and tests, and even in surgery.

Here are some examples of common medical errors:

  • Prescribing the wrong medication due to not having complete patient information (not knowing about allergies or other medicines a patient is taking)
  • Patients receiving the wrong medication due to miscommunication between physicians and pharmacists (most often because of poor handwriting, confusion between drugs with similar names, numeric and dosing mistakes, and inappropriate abbreviations)
  • Errors in diagnosis (such as misinterpretation of test results, not using the right diagnostic tools, or not responding to abnormal test results)
  • Infections (due to inefficient hand washing)
  • Mistakes in following medical orders (such as failing to give a patient a salt-free meal as ordered by the doctor)

Take Control: 10 Ways You Can Prevent Medical Errors in Your Spine Care

#1. Join the Team
The best way you can protect yourself from medical errors is to be an active member of your health care team. You have a say in what back and neck pain treatments you receive and how you receive them. By being a part of every decision made regarding your health and having a good understanding of your spine condition and/or treatment, you are less likely to encounter errors.

#2. Have the Right Info at the Ready: Medical History and Medications
Your doctor needs to understand your medical history and current medications you’re taking (including over-the-counter drugs, vitamins, supplements, and herbals) to create a safe treatment plan—and you need to have this information available for every visit.

  • There are several ways to track this information: You may consider downloading an app to capture your medical history and current medications. Some people even bring a bag of all their vitamins and medications with them to each appointment. Your pharmacist can also print you out of a list of your prescription drugs (if you go to the same pharmacy for all your prescription medications).
  • Also, keep a record of any allergies, hospitalizations, and adverse reactions or sensitivities you've experienced.

#3. Get to Know Your Prescriptions
When your doctor prescribes you a drug, make sure you understand what you’re getting. Ask your doctor the name of the medication, the dose, how often you should take it, and the desired effect. Also, make sure to ask about any serious side effects of the medication. This also applies to medications administered in the hospital—make sure you know what you’re taking and why you’re being given it.

#4. Pick Your Pharmacist’s Brain
Your pharmacist has a wealth of information about your back pain medication, so don’t be afraid to ask questions about how to safely take the drug. Ask about any red flags that indicate the drug isn’t working as intended, and have your pharmacist clarify dosing recommendations. Also, if the medication is liquid, ask your pharmacist the best way to measure it (a spoon at your house may not provide the most accurate dose).

#5. Make a Choice
If you have more than one option on where your spine procedure takes place, choose the facility that has the most experience and the highest success rate in treating your condition. Visit the facility to see where your procedure will take place. Find out what kind of care the facility offers after the procedure as well.

  • If you have the option of choosing your spine surgeon, learn about his or her credentials, experience and background. Set up a meeting with your surgeon and ask questions about his or her experience in treating your condition.
  • Ask what other health professionals will be involved with your care. Does your surgeon have a nurse or physician assistant? Will residents and fellows be involved with your surgery? Will these professionals also be available to you if questions arise? Will you be able to speak with your surgeon, if you prefer? Plan to meet with the people who will be helping to manage your post-operative care. These professionals often become your key advocates following surgery and a good pre-operative rapport is important.

#6. Get a Second Opinion
If you’re not sure if your doctor’s back pain diagnosis or treatment approach is right for you, or if you simply want reassurance to move forward, get a second opinion. A second set of eyes can confirm the safest approach to your care.

#7. Know the Procedure
If you need spine surgery, make sure you understand exactly what will be done. Talk to the surgeon about what the surgery entails, how long it will take, and how you can expect to feel after the procedure. Ask your surgeon about other resources you can use at home to learn more about your back or neck surgery, such as books, brochures, web sites, or videos.

  • Also, ask your doctor about what you need to do before surgery to ensure a safe procedure, such as suspending use of certain medications.

#8. Don’t Go It Alone
Have someone go with you to your doctor's office or to the hospital. That way, if you are too ill or nervous to ask questions, they can speak for you. They may also be able to help you remember all of the information your doctor gives you. Even if you think you don't need help, bring someone anyway. Their presence and support may be more helpful than you realize.

#9. Get the Results
Some doctor's offices follow the "no news is good news" theory of medical tests. But no news is no news. When you don’t understand the results of your diagnostic tests, it is impossible for you to determine good news from ignored test results. To avoid this error, request that your doctor's office call you with the results no matter what they are. If they fail to call in a timely manner, call them to find out the results.

#10. Have a Medical "Home"
If you have more than one medical condition and are seeing several different doctors, choose a single primary care physician who can oversee all of your care and who knows your health history. This will help keep the lines of communication open among your doctors and ensure they each have complete information about your conditions and treatments.

More Resources to Prevent Errors and Ensure Safe Spine Care

The health care system in our country is working hard to improve patient safety. Doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and hospital personnel are dedicated health professionals who have their patients' best interests in mind.

Several departments of the federal government have implemented programs to increase patient safety, such as evaluating brand names of medications to avoid sound-alike and look-alike names. Technology has also helped reduce medical errors, including computer programs that double-check diagnoses and electronic prescriptions that are used instead of handwritten ones to lower the chance of errors.

While the health care industry continues to improve patient safety, you can do your part by asking questions and being an engaged patient. SpineUniverse has additional resources to help you better advocate for your own health and prevent medical errors: 6 Topics to Help You Talk with Your Spine Surgeon, Spine Surgeon Tells Patients How to Prepare for an Appointment, and 10 Tips to Make Your Spine Care Experience Safer.

Updated on: 11/08/18
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