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When are you most at risk from a hospital communication error?

If you're a hospital patient, the most dangerous time for you is whenever you're transferred from one floor to the next or right after every shift change.

Approximately 70 percent of deaths related to medical errors are the result of communication breakdowns during hand-offs, when one patient care team takes over for another. Oddly enough, studies show that the longer the patient care team takes discussing your case, the higher the odds that an error will occur—and longer discussions happen closer to the end of each shift change.

This suggests that members of the care team become less attentive toward the end of their shift change conversations or the way that information is passed somehow becomes less organized. Whatever the cause, breakdowns in communication, like missing or incomplete information, incorrect or conflicting details and irrelevancies are needlessly endangering patients.

Hospitals are aiming to tackle that problem by relying on something rather low-tech: paper-based communication tools. Two different methods were tried, with fairly equal results. Both eliminated the problems with disproportionate time allocation and both helped eliminate communication breakdowns—proving that consistency is often key when it comes to safe patient care.

Given that these sort of tools are just being studied and haven't been put into regular use, what can you do to prevent a communication error if you or a loved one is a patient?

First, no one who is incapacitated and unable to ask or answer questions for themselves should be left alone at shift change. This minimizes the chance that some obvious issue will be overlooked.

Second, make sure that you or a family member is handy to ask relevant questions about the care that's being received:

-- What is this test and why do I need it?

-- When will the results come back and will I be told immediately or will I have to wait until the doctor does his or her rounds?

-- Why is this treatment being given? Are there are alternatives? What are the risks?

-- Has this medication been checked against any known drug allergies?

Finally, don't be afraid to question whether or not the hospital you are at is the best to meet your or your family member's needs. Complicated cases may need a higher level of care.

Anyone who has been injured or suffered the loss of a family member due to a hospital communication error may find the advice of an experienced attorney very beneficial.

Source: Science Daily, "Preventing medical communication errors," University of Illinois at Chicago, Dec. 20, 2016

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