5 Common Preventable Medical Errors

More Than 200,000 Preventable Deaths a Year

The hospital is supposed to be a safe place. When you take a sick or injured child there, "your shoulders drop, you relax, thinking they're in good hands," says Joe Kiani, founder of the Patient Safety Movement Foundation. "The last thing you imagine is that environment killing your child." But it happens. Each year, more than 200,000 people die from preventable medical errors and up to 20 times more suffer from errors but don't die from them, Kiani says. Here are five common medical errors -- and what you can do to help prevent them.

1. Medication Errors

Wrong drug, wrong dose, bad combination, bad reaction. When it comes to medications, innocent mistakes hurt about 1.5 million people each year, according to the Institute of Medicine. Arm yourself by asking hospital staff what you're taking, how much, how often and why, Kiani says. That way, when someone from your medical team comes in to administer drugs, you can match your instructions against theirs "to make sure it's the right medication -- and the right dose," he says.

2. Too Many Blood Transfusions

Red blood cell transfusions are one of the most common procedure in U.S. hospitals, but nearly 60 percent globally were deemed "inappropriate" procedures by a 2011 study. Other research shows the more blood cells a patient receives, the higher his or her risk for infection. Some studies have even found the procedures to boost risk for death and disease. Before you or a loved one undergoes a transfusion, ask why it's necessary. "Don't be afraid to speak up," says Anna Noonan, vice president of the James M. Jeffords Institute for Quality & Operational Effectiveness at the University of Vermont Medical Center. "This is your health."

3. Too Much Oxygen for Premature Babies

Oxygen is like a drug: "Too much is not good, too little isn't good," says Noonan, a registered nurse, who adds that you have to find "the sweet spot" when pumping it into premature babies since an oxygen overdose can cause blindness. The Vermont Medical Center where she works has implemented guidelines that help clinicians identify that sweet spot based on the baby's weight. "It's a simple thing but a very powerful thing that obviously has very long-lasting implications," Noonan says.

4. Health Care-Associated Infections

Go to the hospital to get better, go home feeling worse. Unfortunately, on any given day, about 1 in every 25 hospital patients contracts an infection, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports. Fortunately, the most effective solution is straightforward: Remind your clinician to wash his or her hands. "Hand-washing is the simplest, least costly and probably the most powerful intervention that we can implement to reduce health care-associated infections," Noonan says. "The patient engagement in that is critical."

5. Infections From Central Lines

One type of health care-associated infection is caused by tubes of medicine or fluids usually inserted into large veins, which create "a highway for bacteria to get into the blood or into the bladder," says Dr. Arjun Srinivasan, associate director for Healthcare Associated Infection Prevention Programs at the CDC. For patients, being proactive is key since studies show clinicians sometimes forget about lines, Srinivasan says. "That reminder from the patient can be the impetus for the treatment team to ... take it out."

The Impact of Culture

Walk into any meeting at a MedStar facility and you'll notice a trend: Each of them begin with a "safety moment" that reminds employees their "goal is to deliver the highest-quality, safest care possible," says Dr. David Mayer, MedStar Health's vice president of quality and safety. That type of atmosphere is critical to preventing errors and is visible to patients, Kiani says. "From the doorman to the CEO, they're all thinking and talking about how to make sure their neighbors who come into that hospital go home safe," he says.

The Good News

While even one life lost to a preventable medical error is a tragedy, the good news is that there's a movement to eliminate all such deaths by 2020, Kiani says. At his organization's recent meeting, for example, 400 California hospitals committed to implementing solutions that should save 15,000 lives a year. "The only way to do something about it is for the entire ecosystem of people involved in health care -- whether it's doctors and nurses and hospital administration, or medical technology companies or government or patients -- commit themselves," Kiani says. "It can't be just talk. It's got to be action."