Top Ten Tips for Avoiding
by Jack H. Olender, Esq.
This article has been published in the Community News, The Metro Herald, Washington Afro-American, The Washington Informer, The Washington Sun, and other periodicals.
Although America's health care system is among the world's best, medical mistakes are alarmingly frequent, often dangerous, and should concern every medical consumer. As a medical malpractice attorney, I have represented hundreds of victims of avoidable medical tragedies. One was a loving mother who died unnecessarily of breast cancer because a radiologist misread her mammogram as normal when, in fact, it showed suspicious signs of cancer. Early detection almost certainly would have prevented her death. Another client had to have a leg amputated because his doctor didn't properly diagnose a vascular disorder in his leg.
The medical industry insists such tragedies are extremely rare. They are not. Ninety-five thousand Americans are killed annually by medical malpractice in hospitals, according to a Harvard University study. That's roughly the equivalent of a jumbo jet full of passengers crashing every 24 hours for an entire year. Another 400,000 Americans are victims of medical negligence and misdiagnosis every year. A U.S. government report estimates that about 10 percent of physicians need discipline ranging from supervision to loss of license. Yet only six-tenths of one percent are actually being disciplined.
Much medical malpractice occurs totally outside the control of the patient. In most cases, patients are stunned to discover they are victims of medical negligence. However, not all malpractice comes as a complete surprise. Some of my injured clients recall "warning signs" or "gut feelings" that, if heeded, would have steered them away from the doctor who injured them.
Although much malpractice cannot be foreseen, my "Ten Tips" below, which are based on thirty years experience as a malpractice lawyer, explain how to avoid dangerous doctors and unsafe medical practices, and how to obtain the best possible medical care.
1. Select a caring, competent doctor. If you are fortunate enough to have the freedom to choose your own doctor, exercise this privilege wisely. Finding the right one takes research but your health is worth it. Talk to trusted friends or medical professionals for a good referral. Look for someone who is honest, respectful, experienced, board certified, and affiliated with a hospital. The physician should respect confidentiality and run a clean, well organized office. If you have doubts about a particular doctor, check with the state medical board and local court records to determine whether - or how often - the doctor has been sued for malpractice.
2. Take responsibility for your health. If you are detached or uninvolved, you will be more at risk for mistakes or mistreatment. You have a right and a responsibility to ask questions. It helps many people bring a list of questions and concerns to medical appointments. Take your time asking questions. Remember that the doctor is there to serve you.
Take charge by researching your medical condition. Along with the Physician's Desk Reference and Merck Manual there are many fine books available in your library or bookstore on illnesses ranging from cancer to the common cold.
Before agreeing to any procedure such as surgery, understand the potential risks and benefits, and how long it may take to recover. If your doctor ignores or is offended by your questions, or you do not get reasonable answers, find another doctor.
Frequently doctors who order lab tests will say to a patient, "If you don't hear from me, that means everything is fine." There is always a chance that your test result is not fine, and that your doctor - or someone in the doctor's office - simply forgot to phone you. If you haven't heard any news, call. For your own safety, request that your tests - especially Pap smears - be sent out to a certified lab or a hospital, which are generally more reliable than doctors' laboratories.
3. Bring an advocate along. When dealing with a worrisome medical condition, we aren't always able to effectively advocate on our own behalf. Invite a trusted friend or relative to help you navigate unfamiliar medical terrain. As an advocate, he or she can listen, take notes, ask questions, monitor your medications, and provide support.
4. Give all the facts. When you withhold medical information, you handicap your doctor and jeopardize your own health. The patient whose leg had to be amputated failed to tell his podiatrist that he had a hereditary circulation disorder. The doctor never asked. Incomplete information can lead to all sorts of accidents, including fatal drug interactions. Even details that may seem trivial should be mentioned to your doctor.
5. Trust your instincts. A client of mine went to her HMO physician complaining of bowel problems. When blood was detected in her stool, she told the doctor she feared she had colon cancer. The HMO didn't bother to order a simple diagnostic test. Tragically, my client's hunch was right. A year and a half later she was diagnosed with fatally advanced colon cancer.
Her story holds a lesson for us all: If you think there's a problem, you may be right - even if your doctor doesn't think so. If you have a reasonable suspicion that something is wrong, insist on a thorough investigation. Your extra effort will give you peace of mind.
6. Make allies. Your chances of recovery are best when you and your doctors are allies rather than adversaries. When you are friendly and communicative, your health care providers will want to help you more. Make allies with everyone involved in your health care, including receptionists, nurses, and medical assistants.
7. Follow your doctor's instructions. Unless you have reason to believe your doctor is negligent, follow directions. Take exactly the amount of medication prescribed and report any reactions. Faithfully follow your doctor's directions with respect to diet and exercise. If you have any doubts about your medical regimen, call your physician right away.
8. Have a follow-up examination. After any treatment, visit the doctor again to make sure you are on the road to recovery. This is especially true for postoperative complications, which happen frequently even when the care is good. The sooner you notice and report such problems, the easier it is to deal with them effectively.
9. Get a second opinion. Doctors often have different outlooks on the nature and treatment of illness. When considering non-emergency surgery, a second opinion is absolutely essential. A different perspective also can be helpful in diagnosing and treating a chronic illness. If you still have doubts after a second opinion, get a third.
10. Demand discipline for negligent doctors. Invest in your own health and safety by speaking out against medical malpractice. Urge lawmakers to weed out the relatively few "bad apples" who commit the bulk of negligence. Demand public access to doctor disciplinary records. Take a stand against so-called "tort reform" measures that let dangerous doctors off the hook by making it harder for victims to file claims.
By following these Ten Tips, you will not 100 percent safe. After all, much of what can go wrong in medicine is beyond the control of the patient. However, there are times when your actions - or lack of action - may determine whether you get the care you need and deserve. Although these tips do not come with an ironclad guarantee of safety, they will help you to feel more confident and in control in medical situations. By taking charge of your health, you will almost certainly reduce your risk of becoming a malpractice victim. What's more, you will increase your chances of recovery, good health, and long life.
Washington malpractice lawyer Jack H. Olender was elected Lawyer of the Year by the D.C. Bar Association, and Trial Lawyer of the Year by the Trial Lawyers Association, D.C. He has prosecuted to a verdict or settlement more than ninety cases upwards of a million dollars each.
Copyright © 1996, Jack H. Olender