Prevent Medical Errors

What Are Medical Errors?

Medical errors are mistakes in health care that could have been prevented. They can occur in hospitals, clinics, surgery centers, doctors' offices, nursing homes, pharmacies, and your home. Errors can involve medicines, surgery, diagnosis, equipment, or lab reports. They are often caused by a lack of good communication. Medical errors may result in injury or death.

Some examples of medical errors are:

  • Getting the wrong meal while in the hospital, such as a regular meal when you need a salt-free meal.
  • Getting the wrong medicine or the wrong dose of medicine.
  • Getting a diagnosis or lab test that is not correct.
  • Not knowing what doctor instructions mean and doing the wrong thing.
  • Having a piece of medical equipment fail or not work the right way.

What You Can Do to Prevent Medical Errors

The best thing you can do to prevent medical errors is to be involved in your health care. Learn and know about your health problem, medicine, and treatment as best you can and take part in making all decisions about your care. Talk to everyone who is involved in your health care. This includes your doctors, other health professionals, family, and friends.

Before you agree to a medicine, treatment plan, surgery, or lifestyle change, such as changing what you eat, be sure you understand it. Always ask if you are not clear on any whats, hows, or whys.

The following steps can help you prevent medical errors:

  • Speak up if you have questions or concerns. You have a right to question anyone who is involved with your care. This is easier if you have a doctor you feel comfortable with.
  • Make sure that someone, such as your personal doctor, is in charge of your care. This is especially important if you have many health problems or are in a hospital.
  • Make sure that all health professionals involved in your care have health information about you. Don't assume that everyone knows everything they need to know.
  • Ask a family member or friend to be there for you. Take someone along with you to a doctor's visit or to the hospital. Make sure this person will speak up for you and get things done if you're not able to help yourself. Even if you don't need help now, you might need it later. Make sure this person knows your wishes for your care.
  • Know that “more” is not always “better.” Find out why a test or treatment is needed and how it can help you. You might be better off without it.
  • If you have a test, don't assume that no news is good news. Ask when and how you will get the results of tests or procedures. If you don't get them when you expect to, don't assume that the results are fine. Call your doctor and ask for the results and what they mean for your health and treatment.
  • Learn about your condition and treatment. Ask your doctors if your treatment is based on the latest evidence. You can find treatment recommendations based on the latest evidence at Other good places to learn about your condition and treatment include your local library, respected Web sites, and support groups.

There are places you can check to see how your health care is rated. Here are a few of them:

  • Hospital Compare, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services:
  • The Joint Commission:
  • Consumer Health Ratings:

Prevent Errors with Medicines

How to use medicines can be confusing, especially if you are using a lot of medicines. You need to keep track of when and how to take them, and prescriptions and labels are not always easy to understand. So it's easy for an error with medicine to happen.

What to tell your doctor

  • Tell your doctor and other health professionals about all the medicines you are taking. This includes prescription and over-the-counter medicines as well as supplements such as vitamins and herbs. You can give your doctor a master list of medicines(What is a PDF document?) . Or you can put all your medicines, supplements, and vitamins in a bag and take them with you when you see your doctor.
  • Tell your doctor about any drug allergies or other reactions to medicine you have. If you are allergic to some medicines, your doctor can help you find another one or change the dose. This can help you avoid getting a medicine that might harm you.
  • Stay in touch with your doctor if you are taking pain medicine. Your doctor needs to know how well your pain medicine is working. If your pain medicine is not working, don't take it more often or in a larger dose. Talk to your doctor first.
  • Tell your doctor about side effects that are severe or unexpected. Don't just try to live with the side effects. Your doctor may be able to change the medicine or change how much you take to help with side effects.

What to ask your doctor or pharmacist

  • What do you mean? If you don't know why you're taking a medicine or how to take it, ask. Not knowing how to follow instructions can cause errors with medicine.
  • How do I take this? Make sure you know how your doctor wants you to take your medicine. Write down how much medicine you need to take, and how many times a day you take it.
  • Is it safe to take this medicine with other medicines? Taking certain medicines together may cause a bad reaction. This is called an interaction. To make sure that you don’t have a bad reaction from your medicines, tell your doctor or pharmacist what other medicines or supplements you are taking. And make a list of any medicines that you shouldn't take.
  • Is there anything I shouldn't do? Make sure you know about any foods, drinks, or activities you should avoid while you take the medicine. Find out what medicines may not be safe to give your child.
  • What do I do if I miss a dose? With some medicines, you wait until the next time you take it. With others, you need to make up the dose.
  • What are the side effects? Know what side effects you can expect and what to do if they occur.

This medicine form(What is a PDF document?) can help you do this.

What to ask your pharmacist

  • What does this prescription say? If you can't read your doctor's handwriting on a prescription, ask what it says. If your pharmacist can't read it, have him or her call your doctor. Don't guess.
  • Is this what my doctor prescribed? Make sure you have the correct medicine, at the correct dose. If you are refilling a prescription and the size, shape, or color of the pills look different than before, check to make sure it's the right medicine. When you get your medicine, read the label. If the medicine looks different than you expected, ask the pharmacist about it.
  • How do I measure the medicine if it's a liquid? Liquids can be hard to measure. The teaspoon you use for cooking, for example, may hold a different amount from what the doctor means. It may also be hard to know which line to fill a syringe or dropper to.
  • What does the label say? Medicine labels can be confusing. For example, ask if "take 1 time a day in the morning" means you can take it any time in the morning or early in the morning. If you have any questions about what a label says, ask about it. Do this for both prescription and over-the-counter medicines.

Prevent Errors in the Hospital

Many medical errors happen in the hospital. For example, you may receive the wrong meal or medicine. Here are some things you can ask to avoid errors:

  • Have you washed your hands?It may sound like an odd thing to ask, but doing so can help prevent infections. One study found that when people asked hospital workers about washing their hands, the workers did so more consistently.1
  • Am I the right person? Make sure hospital workers check your wristband or ask your name before accepting something. You want your own food, medicine, treatment, and bill—not someone else's.
  • How long do I need this? Is it safe? Ask about each step of your care. For example, if you have a urinary catheter, ask about it. The longer you have a catheter, the more likely it is you'll get an infection.1
  • What do I do when I go home? Before you leave the hospital, ask your doctor to explain and write down your treatment plan. Ask about your medicines, what you can or can't do, and when you can return to work, school, or other activities. If you're given an instruction sheet, read it and be sure you know what it means.

Before going to a hospital for a surgery or procedure, ask how often it is done. Research shows that you likely will have better results when you go to a hospital that has a lot of experience with a health problem or surgery.1

Prevent Errors During Surgery

Before you have surgery, be sure that you and all your doctors know what is going to happen. Ask about:

  • Your surgeon's experience. You may get better results if your surgeon has done a lot of operations.
  • When you'll have your surgery. Your surgical team may be more alert in the morning.
  • How to prepare for the surgery. Ask your doctor if you have to stop taking any medicines or stop eating or drinking before the surgery. Be sure that your doctor knows which part of your body to operate on. It's rare that surgery is done on the wrong part of the body, but it can happen. Tell your surgeon it's okay to mark your skin in advance to point to the correct area for surgery.
  • What to do after surgery. Ask about medicines you may need after surgery and what you need to do at home. Ask about what you can or can't eat and how to take care of surgical cuts (incisions). Ask when you need to call for help.

Be sure to tell your doctors:

  • Whether you have ever had a bad reaction to anesthesia. Anesthesia is the medicine you get before your surgery to make you sleep or feel relaxed and help with pain.
  • Whether you take any vitamins, supplements, or herbal remedies.
  • Whether you have an advance directive. If you don't have one, you may want to prepare one so your doctor knows your health care wishes.
  • If you get a cold, fever, flu, or other illness close to your surgery date.

Other Places To Get Help


Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality
540 Gaither Road
Suite 2000
Rockville, MD  20850
Phone: (301) 427-1364
Web Address:

The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) is one agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. AHRQ supports research initiatives that seek to improve the quality of health care in America. AHRQ's mission is to improve the quality, safety, efficiency, effectiveness, and cost-effectiveness of health care for all Americans. The Web site provides evidence-based information to help people make decisions about health care services.

Medically Induced Trauma Support Services
830 Boylston Street
Suite 206
Chestnut Hill, MA  02467
Phone: 1-888-36-MITSS (1-888-366-4877)
(617) 232-0090
Fax: (617) 232-7181
Web Address:

Medically Induced Trauma Support Services (MITSS) is a non-profit organization that supports, educates, trains and offers assistance to individuals affected by medically induced trauma.

National Patient Safety Foundation
1120 MASS MoCA Way
North Adams, MA  01247
Phone: (413) 663-8900
Fax: (413) 663-8905
Web Address:

The National Patient Safety Foundation is an organization dedicated to improving the safety of patients. The Foundation works to raise public awareness about patient safety and is a resource for people and organizations who are concerned about the safety of patients.

Persons United Limiting Substandards and Errors in Health Care
3300 Park Ave
P.O. Box 353
Wantagh, NY  11793-0353
Phone: 1-800-96-PULSE
(516) 579-4711
Fax: (516) 520-8105
Web Address:

Persons United Limiting Substandards and Errors in Health Care (PULSE) is a non-profit support group and organization working to improve patient safety and reduce the rate of medical errors. The services offered by PULSE include counseling services, support groups, and educational programs.



  1. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (2000). 20 Tips to Help Prevent Medical Errors. Patient Fact Sheet (AHRQ Publication No. 00-P038). Rockville, MD: Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

Other Works Consulted

  • Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (2002). 20 tips to help prevent medical errors in children. Rockville, MD: Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Also available online:
  • HealthGrades (2007). HealthGrades Quality Study: Fourth Annual Patient Safety in American Hospitals Study. Golden, CO: HealthGrades. Also available online:
  • Lannon C, et al. (2007). Quality and safety in health care for children. In RM Kliegman et al., eds., Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics, 18th ed., pp. 14–18. Philadelphia: Saunders Elsevier.
  • Leape LL, Berwick DM (2005). Five years after To Err Is Human: What have we learned? JAMA, 293(19): 2384–2390.
  • Persell SD, et al. (2005). Performance measurement in clinical practice. In DC Dale, DD Federman, eds., ACP Medicine, Clinical Essentials, chap. 13. New York: WebMD.


Author Caroline Rea, RN, BS, MS
Author Paul Lehnert
Editor Susan Van Houten, RN, BSN, MBA
Associate Editor Pat Truman, MATC
Primary Medical Reviewer Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Anne C. Poinier, MD - Internal Medicine
Last Updated September 4, 2008

related physicians

related services

Bon Secours International| Sisters of Bon Secours USA| Bon Secours Health System

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information. Your use of this information means that you agree to the Terms of Use. Privacy Policy. How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.

© 1995-2010 Healthwise, Incorporated. Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.