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Patient Safety and Quality

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Patients are willing to help prevent medical errors, but reluctant to take all the recommended actions

Many hospital leaders and prominent patient safety organizations encourage patients to become actively involved in preventing medical errors. For example, they recommend that patients confirm that they receive the right medication, mark their surgical site, and ask medical professionals whether they have washed their hands. Patients are motivated to take action to avoid harm caused by errors; however, some actions may be unfamiliar, difficult, or anxiety provoking, according to a new study.

The study included telephone interviews with 2,078 patients discharged from 11 Midwest hospitals and was supported by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (HS14012 and HS11898). Researchers found that 91 percent of patients were very comfortable asking about a medication's purpose, 89 percent were very comfortable asking general medical questions, and 84 percent were comfortable confirming their patient identity. However, only 46 percent of patients were very comfortable asking medical providers whether they had washed their hands.

While hospitalized, many patients asked questions about their care (85 percent) and a medication's purpose (75 percent). Fewer patients confirmed that they were the correct patient (38 percent), helped mark their incision site (17 percent), or asked about handwashing (5 percent).

Patients who felt very comfortable with error prevention were significantly more likely to take six of seven error-prevention actions compared with uncomfortable patients. The researchers suggest that educational interventions to increase comfort with error prevention may be needed to help patients become more engaged in preventing medical errors. For example, patient safety programs can help reduce patients' fears about insulting their providers by posting signs in hospital rooms about how patients can help prevent errors or by having providers wear reminder buttons stating, "Ask me if I washed my hands."

More details are in "Brief report: Hospitalized patients' attitudes about and participation in error prevention," by Amy D. Waterman, Ph.D., Thomas H. Gallagher, M.D., Jane Garbutt, M.B., Ch.B., and others, in the April 2006 Journal of General Internal Medicine 21, pp. 367-370.

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