As a medical malpractice lawyer for the past 40 years, I’ve noticed a pattern in my cases: if my clients had followed some or all of the steps listed below, they could have avoided being the subject of medical malpractice. While not a cure-all, following these steps could not only result in preventing medical negligence/malpractice, but also receiving better medical care. If, however, you or your loved one has suffered rom what you believe to be medical negligence, contact an experienced medical malpractice attorney immediately.
- Obtain a Copy of your Medical Records
A principal error that occurs over and over again giving rise to medical negligence claims is a failure to communicate. The failure can be between patient and physician or between one physician and another. The best method for avoiding these types of mistakes is to obtain and read your own medical records.
Under the HIPAA Privacy Rule, patients have a right to receive and review their own medical records and health information held by doctors, hospitals, and other healthcare providers. Despite the availability, many patients never do. In the past, when most doctors and hospitals had a paper-based system, it was time consuming and expensive to get copies of your medical records. And if you did get them, it would result in a large amount of paper. Modern medicine makes it easier to obtain records, and the law now requires healthcare providers to switch to EHR (electronic health records). The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) offer a Medicare and Medicaid EHR program that provides incentive payments to eligible professionals and hospitals as they adopt and meaningfully use EHR technology. Also, there are Government Penalties for eligible providers who fail to adopt and demonstrate meaningful use of EHR technology by 2015, such as having their Medicare reimbursements reduced. As a result, it is now possible in many cases to subscribe to your physician’s, laboratory’s, or hospital’s “health portal.” Using that “portal” enables you to open your electronic medical records and download them to your computer.
- Review your Medical Records and Ask Questions
It is critical to review your medical records to ensure that there are no errors. If errors are contained in your records, they are often repeated over and over again as one healthcare provider, relying on a mistake another healthcare provider made, simply repeats the misinformation. While many times the mistakes may be minor, there are instances in which simple errors lead to disastrous consequences.
For example, if you have repeatedly complained of headaches but doctor’s record indicates that you had no complaints, it's critical to correct the error before it is repeated and potentially causes harm by not getting the tests you need. Another example is if you have no family history of heart disease but the medical record suggests that you do, unless corrected you may wind up getting unnecessary invasive tests that can result in complications simply because your history was incorrect.
In addition to looking for medical errors, it's important to review your records to see if there is any information you were not aware of. For example, in one case, if the patient had reviewed his own laboratory records, he would have realized early on that his severely elevated white blood cell count should have resulted in a workup for potential blood cancer. The physician involved never noticed the elevated white count and the patient was equally unaware. In another example, had a patient reviewed her CT scan report, done for the purpose of working up her abdominal pain, she would have discovered that while her abdomen did not show any signs of a problem, her lung did. The radiologist recommended follow-up but the physician never noticed until it was too late.
One does not necessarily need to be a physician to understand medical records. Laboratory results are expressed as normal, high, or low. Simply looking for the highs and lows and questioning the doctor about abnormal results at the next doctor's visit can avoid many potential medical mistakes. Similarly, while one may not understand all of the medical jargon in a CAT scan report, when it says in plain English that follow-up for an abnormal finding in the lung is recommended, important questions should be asked.
It's not only important to review your medical records to find mistakes and information you were unaware of, it's also important from the standpoint of being able to provide new healthcare providers with critical information on a timely basis. Even in this modern age of electronic medical records, there is often considerable delay in getting old information to new healthcare providers.
Additional but equally important measures to avoid becoming a victim of medical negligence include making an outline of the symptoms, issues and questions you wish to discuss with your physician. All too often, patients forget what they needed to communicate. Thus in the stress of a hurried office visit, there may be a failure for critical information to be communicated.
- Bring a Friend or Family Member Along to Critical Appointments
Along the same lines, it's often a good idea to bring a family member or close friend to a medical visit. Many times patients are too stressed during a medical visit to effectively comprehend what they were told by the physician or the various options that were laid out. Thus proper decisions cannot be effectively made. Additionally, it may help to have a witness to critical data that should have been conveyed by the physician, but for whatever reason was not conveyed.
- Take Notes After Doctors’ Visits
Taking notes after a doctor visit is an excellent way to ensure that you understand what was conveyed and what additional steps must be taken to achieve a diagnosis or treatment. By taking notes, you may realize that there are gaps in your knowledge which will then help you to raise additional questions for your healthcare provider at the next visit.
Medical research has shown that patients who are actively engaged in obtaining and reviewing their own health records get higher quality health care, and can avoid potential medical errors.