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Don't leave the doctor sicker than when you came in

Friday - 3/21/2014, 8:00am  ET

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Talking to your doctor and doing research can help cut the risk of infections and medical errors. (Thinkstock)

WASHINGTON -- Patient safety remains a problem at medical facilities throughout the country. But in our region, an effort is underway to cut the risk of infections and medical errors.

On Friday, medical caregivers from hospitals, nursing homes and clinics are coming together to learn, network and share the latest ideas for protecting patients.

The problem is huge, according to Robert Imhoff, president and CEO of the Maryland Patient Safety Center, which is organizing the day of medical brainstorming.

Estimates of the number of deaths from preventable errors vary widely. In 1999, the Institute of Medicine put the number at up to 98,000. Last September, a study published in the Journal of Patient Safety said the number may now be four times that.

Whatever the total, Imhoff says it is a reason for deep concern within the medical community, which is devoting considerable time and money to cutting the risk to patients.

For example, it may seem like a very simple thing, he says, but just having hand sanitzer dispensers readily available in medical settings has done a great deal to cut the infection rate.

Imhoff says many hospitals have taken the lead on this and have sanitzer available everywhere for staff and visitors.

"This is something they are very proactive with, and something you didn't see five, 10 years ago," he says.

Patient attitudes have also shifted. Imhoff says patients are getting more involved in their care, adding that "we believe that an engaged and informed patient is a safer patient."

The days when patients blindly accepted anything said or done by a health-care provider have come to an end for most of us. Imhoff says there is no need to feel intimidated any more, and except for a few holdouts, most doctors appreciate it when patients get more involved.

That means asking lots of questions, especially before going in for surgery at a hospital or out-patient clinic. And Imhoff suggests writing them down before you check in.

He also says its a good idea for patients to keep a list of all medications you take and the dosage. That may well prevent a prescription mistake later.

Another tip: In a case of an emergency, have a family member or friend along as a designated spokesperson.

Imhoff says that at stressful times, a patient may not be able to think clearly, and it's good to have someone with you who remains calm, can ask the right questions and can notice things that someone in the throes of treatment may not see.

And that goes for even the basics, like hand washing.

"If you are in an exam room and a doctor or nurse comes in to examine you and you noticed that they have not washed their hands, ask them to do so," Imhoff says.

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