Bob was born with four holes in his heart. He spent weeks in the hospital as an infant. One day his mother, Shannon, looked up as a nurse entered the hospital room. Shannon had noticed that one of the drugs Bob was getting through his IV was clear and the other was cloudy. Bob was supposed to get a big dose of one, and a small dose of the other. Shannon was startled by what she saw in the barrel of the syringe that the nurse was about to inject into Bob’s IV.

She blurted out, “That’s three times what he usually gets!”

The nurse stopped -- fortunately. It turns out that she had reversed the doses of the two drugs and had come within seconds of injecting a massive overdose of a heart-slowing drug into Bob’s veins. It would have killed him on the spot. Bob’s life was saved only because his mother wasn’t in the bathroom or getting a cup of coffee when the nurse walked in.

Hospital care is a mixed blessing. It saves millions of lives every year, but it also kills more than 600,000 people by accident -- due to medical errors, infections, blood clots, misdiagnosis, and side effects of medicines.

First, according to a Wall Street Journal report of a HealthGrades study, “An average of 195,000 patients a year died from preventable hospital errors.”  Three common medical errors are: making a mistake in performing a test or in an operation, not acting when a test result shows a problem that needs immediate attention, and failing to communicate.

Second, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) estimates that about 1.7 million people each year pick up infections while in the hospital, and 99,000 die as a result. People get these infections, the CDC says, because care providers don’t wash their hands. One study concluded that only about a third of hospital workers routinely wash their hands before touching patients.  Doctors are no exception; only 44% wash their hands “if they think no one is watching,” according to a study in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Third, blood clots that form in the veins and then break off and travel to the lungs cause about 200,000 deaths per year after surgery or hospitalization for other treatment, according to research by Dr. John A. Heit at the Mayo Clinic.

Fourth, 40,000-80,000 people a year die in hospitals because they are misdiagnosed, and so are treated for the wrong condition, estimates Dr. Peter Pronovost of Johns Hopkins.

Fifth, about 106,000 people die as a result of side effects of medicines they are given in the hospital, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. A national study mandated by the U.S. Congress concluded that 1.5 million preventable problems with medicines occur in hospitals each year. It went on to say, “A hospital patient can expect on average to be subjected to more than one medication error each day.”

Bob was fortunate. He was rescued from the drug error that could have killed him. A few weeks later, he underwent open heart surgery that almost everyone expected to fail. However, the extraordinarily gifted surgeon pulled off a miracle, and Bob survived the surgery.

His parents had watched their baby struggle his entire life -- from Easter to the Fourth of July. Now they started to hope that he would have a shot at a normal life, a chance to see other Easters and other Fourths of July, a chance to see Halloween and Thanksgiving and Christmas.

And the miracles won out. Bob is now in the first grade, and is a cheerful, intelligent, active human being. Not everyone is so lucky, as the statistics above suggest. That said, you can take steps to safeguard your life, or the lives of others you care about.

Action steps you can take to protect yourself if you are admitted to the hospital include:

  • Ask to be evaluated for risk of blood clots. Most people are at risk. If you are one of them, ask your doctor how they will be prevented.
  • Ask everyone who enters your room -- doctors, nurses, clergy, family members -- to wash their hands before approaching you.
  • Ask your doctors to tell you what drugs and doses they have ordered. Write this information down. Verify that the drugs brought for you match this list.
  • If you believe something is going wrong with your care, speak up.  
  • If at all possible, bring an advocate with you -- someone who can watch out for you and ask questions when you cannot.