What You Should Know Before Going to the Doctor

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When we go to the hospital, the doctor, or even the dentist, we expect to leave in better shape than we came in. Alarmingly, however, medical malpractice is the third leading cause of death in the U.S. according to The Journal of the American Medical Association. Medical errors claim more than 251,000 lives every year, more than respiratory disease, accidents, stroke and Alzheimer’s, indicating that patient safety measures fall far short.

So, what exactly is medical malpractice? And how can we protect ourselves as patients?

As part of Patient Safety Awareness Week, we take you through everything you need to know about medical malpractice: your rights as a patient, how to protect yourself, and what to do if you’ve been the victim of negligence at the hands of a medical provider.

Medical Malpractice: The Basics

By definition, medical malpractice is improper, unskilled or negligent treatment of a patient by a healthcare professional such as a physician, dentist, nurse, or pharmacist.

Malpractice occurs when a healthcare provider deviates from the recognized “standard of care.” In other words, if another prudent medical provider would have acted in the same way under similar circumstances, then no negligence occurred. However, if evidence exists that suggests a treatment was not necessary or would have had a different outcome if performed by a different provider, then the healthcare provider is culpable of medical malpractice.

There are various forms of medical malpractice, such as misdiagnosis, medication errors, and surgical errors. One recent example of questionable behavior within the medical industry which has had a profound effect on patients’, even communities’ lives, is the overprescription of opioids in emergency rooms that have led to opiate addiction.

Your Rights as a Patient

As patients without medical knowledge, we may feel helpless when it comes to questioning what our doctors instruct us is the best course of action, whether for tests, treatments, or drug prescriptions.

And although most doctors are committed to patient safety first and foremost, it’s reasonable to remember that you have rights as a patient and should invoke them in order to protect yourself from the bad apples, like the Dallas doctor who left three dozen patients maimed or paralyzed after botched surgeries.

Some of your rights as a patient are guaranteed by federal law, such as the right to obtain a copy of your medical records and the right to keep them private. Additionally, doctor-patient interaction is required to be kept confidential. Physicians are restricted from revealing confidential information without the patient’s permission or unless required to do so by law.

Apart from the right to privacy, two of the main rights you have as a patient are the right to communication and the right to informed consent.

Our health is the most important thing we have. To protect ourselves from malpractice, we must be proactive about medical care and be our own advocates for our well-being.

Right to Communication

Also known as the right to full disclosure, honest and open communication between physicians and patients is required by law. Patients have a right to know their past and present medical states in order to have no false assumptions about their health. If a patient suffers significant complications as a result of their physician’s mistake or judgment, the physician is ethically required to inform the patient of all the facts necessary to make sure the patient understands what happened. Full disclosure is extremely important so that a patient is able to make informed decisions about their future medical care.

Right to Informed Consent

Similarly, as a patient, you have the right to informed consent. This means that if you need a treatment, your healthcare provider is required to give you all the information necessary for you to make a decision. The healthcare provider must walk you through what he or she proposes to do, the nature and purpose of the treatment, whether it constitutes a minor procedure or major surgery, the intended effects and anticipated benefits, as well as any possible side effects and risks involved. The healthcare provider must also present all reasonable alternatives and their own pros and cons.

In order to comply with informed consent, a healthcare provider must be sure the patient is competent to understand his or her options. People with disabilities, children, some elderly patients, or anyone who is not competent to make decisions at the time of a medical dilemma must have proper representation.

Many states have additional laws in place to protect patients and some healthcare facilities have their own patient bill of rights. There are other avenues for advice: your state’s ombudsman office, department of health, or a hospital’s designated patient advocate.

You also have the right to refuse treatment or change doctors. Most importantly, you have the right to ask questions when it comes to your health.

How Can I Protect Myself from Medical Malpractice?

Our health is the most important thing we have. To protect ourselves from malpractice, we must be proactive about medical care and be our own advocates for our well-being.

First of all, go to a proven and legitimate doctor. Depending on which state you live in, you may be able to look up your doctor’s record online. You can find this information at the Federation of State Medical Boards website, or through your state health department.

Do your own research to understand whatever health condition you’re facing. Document your symptoms and write down any questions you have. When you see your doctor, you should not only expect but also demand full and complete answers.

Although it may be intimidating if you sense something is wrong, be honest about it. Speak to your healthcare provider and explain what’s bothering you. It’s important to trust your doctor or nurse, but it’s also important to be discerning and use common sense. A doctor has to earn your trust, and it’s okay to not feel confident in someone who doesn’t answer your questions or does not give you or your condition adequate attention or time.

Every time a visit to the doctor ends with a proposed treatment, there are five questions you should ask your healthcare provider:

  1. Is this test or procedure absolutely necessary?
  2. What are the risks and side effects?
  3. Are there any options that are simpler and safer?
  4. What happens if I choose not to go through with this test or procedure?
  5. How much does it cost, and is it covered by my insurance?

Consumer Reports made cards with these questions that you can print out, put in your wallet, and take with you every time you go to the doctor.

Remember that you always have the option of getting a second opinion. If you feel uncomfortable or lack confidence in your current healthcare provider, don’t be afraid to find a new doctor.

What’s Tort Reform?

The impression that medical malpractice lawsuits are frivolous has been circulating recently. Some argue that regulation of medical malpractice claims, called “tort reform,” will bring down costs and improve medical care. Further, these doctors and lawmakers argue that an increase in medical malpractice lawsuits has led to deteriorated healthcare, as doctors, fearing lawsuits, are timid in their practice.

Many states have embraced tort reform, limiting the amount of money injured patients can recover. There is even a bill in Congress currently which aims to impose time limits on when victims of medical malpractice can file claims and caps noneconomic damages at $250,000.

In reality, not only is the number of medical malpractice claims declining, but also tort reform creates a greater burden on the healthcare system.

The substantial limits imposed as part of tort reform in states like Texas and Wisconsin often hurt the patients who are most gravely hurt, have a lifetime of future medical needs and can no longer work. Instead of getting justice in court, these people have to rely on health insurance and in many cases, on Medicare or Medicaid to pay for their medical bills. The nation and its taxpayers end up footing the bill for the mistake of the individuals at fault.

Defending Victims of Medical Malpractice

If you suspect you’ve been subjected to negligent medical care, the first thing you should do is contact an attorney.

An attorney will secure patient medical records, conduct interviews, and guide you through your state’s statutes of limitations. Morgan & Morgan has a team of medical malpractice attorneys with extensive experience proving healthcare provider negligence.

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