Everyone knows that heart disease is the #1 killer of Americans and that cancer is #2.  But few people can tell you the third leading cause of death, which kills 400,000 of our loved ones, friends, and colleagues each year.  The #3 killer is not a disease.  And it’s 100% preventable.

The #3 killer is preventable medical errors.

Yep, it’s true.  Our healthcare system is stretched way too thin, and one result is prevetable medical errors that kill 400,000 of us each year.  It’s equivalent to 2,000 commercial jets taking off each year knowing that they don’t have enough fuel to complete their journeys.  Would you allow your spouse to board one of those planes?  Your friend?  A stranger?

It’s not just the staggering number of preventable deaths.  Each day, 10,000 of us suffer a preventable serious complication.  And preventable medical errors are not confined to hospitals.  A recent study revealed that 1 out of every 5 of us who visit our doctor’s office is the victim of an error in diagnosis or missed diagnosis.  That’s 12 million adults who are incorrectly diagnosed by their outpatient doctor every year.  Worse, half of these errors (affecting 6 million of us annually) have potentially serious consequences (such as a missed cancer diagnosis).

Listen, doctors and nurses help way, way, way more people than they unintentionally harm.  But the risk is yours, so you must own your health.  And while you don’t have advanced medical knowledge, you truly can significantly protect yourself from preventable medical injury or death.  Not surprisingly, your power comes from simply speaking up.

Even if you are in the hospital, by simply speaking up, you or your loved ones (if you are too ill) can protect yourself from a dangerous medical error.  An actual example: one day following knee surgery, a hospitalized woman saw that her orthopedic surgeon failed to wash his hands upon entering her room.  She knew he should (that’s why the sink is just inside the door) but was uncomfortable reminding him.  He proceeded to touch her surgical wound to evaluate her healing.  What he also did was transfer very aggressive bacteria from his previous patient into her new knee, requiring an additional two weeks of antibiotics in the hospital.

Would you eat a meal that you saw your waiter sneeze into? So if you are uncertain whether your doctor or nurse has washed their hands before touching you, own your health and respectfully ask!  Remind the nurse that you are allergic to penicillin as she prepares to give you an antibiotic.  Remind the surgeon just before surgery to repair your left, not your right, hip.  Ask the nurse if the blood you are about to receive is a match for your blood type.  I have seen all of these preventable errors (and so many more!) hurt (even kill) people just like you and me and our loved ones.  And I have seen patients who own their health and speak up protect themselves from such serious harm.  And here’s the truth:  whether or not an error is prevented, doctors and nurse are grateful for patients who care enough to speak up.  And when harm is prevented, we providers are truly humbled (and thankful) at having “dodged a bullet,” and we become even more committed to providing safe care.

Many patients visit their doctor’s office when something new worries them.  Here again, speaking up can protect you.  If your physician’s plan doesn’t make sense or feel right to you, ask questions.  Ask why your doctor is recommending the X-ray, blood test, or simply “doing nothing for now.”  Once you clearly understand your doctor’s recommendations, you may feel comfortable and agree.  Or you may not.  You may feel that your doctor seems less concerned with your physical complaint than you are.  Another real-world example:  a man visits his doctor because he has recently seen a little bright red blood on some of his stools.  His doctor says, “You probably have hemorrhoids.  It will clear up.”  The man is worried that he may actually have something more serious, but he is uncomfortable challenging his physician.  Four months later, he is diagnosed with rectal cancer.  I have partnered with many such patients whose discomfort with speaking up to their doctor outweighed their fear, delaying their cancer diagnosis by many, many months.

If you don’t feel that your doctor is concerned enough about your health problem, SPEAK UP!  It is your health and your risk.  Furthermore, good doctors (which represent the vast majority) are not offended by patients who take such ownership of their health (we prefer them).  Simply saying, “Doc, I’m worried it could be something worse than hemorrhoids” will most likely lead to, “O.K.  Let’s schedule a colonoscopy to check.”  The result?  Earlier cancer detection with a greater likelihood of cure.  And if your doc truly says, “No.  It’s hemorrhoids,” seek a second opinion (see my blog on Second Opinions).  This example holds true for all ailments.

Finally, patients themselves are a major source of preventable harm.  Up to 30% of people with serious, chronic conditions do not take their medications as prescribed.  More than a quarter of us fail to fill new prescriptions.  There are many reasons why.  Some chronic illnesses don’t cause symptoms, so people just don’t want to take any drugs.  For others, the drug’s side-effects are worse than the disease symptoms.  And still others simply cannot afford their medicines and either don’t take them as prescribed or at all.  But while there are numerous reasons for medication “non-compliance,” there is one common consequence:  preventable, often significant harm to you.

If you aren’t correctly taking your prescribed drugs, own your health, swallow your embarrassment, and speak with your doctor.  Too costly?  Your physician may be able to prescribe an affordable generic drug.  Or help you work with the drug company to significantly reduce your costs through their customer aid plans (offered for many of their higher cost medicines, such as cancer drugs).  Don’t like the side effects?  Many times there are other equally effective drugs that for you may have more tolerable, fewer, or no side effects.  Don’t take your meds because you don’t have any symptoms (such as patients with high blood pressure)?  Your doctor will understand your feelings but will share the reality that if untreated, the first symptom of many chronic conditions is serious or even lift-threatening (the first “symptom” of untreated high blood pressure may be a heart attack).

You can reduce your risk from the third leading cause of death, as well as from preventable medical injuries and harm caused by medication non-compliance.  Own your health, speak up, and be safe!

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