Preventing Communication Failures

Assume nothing. Honestly.

That can be challenging when you’re a patient or a family member, and you just want to trust the system to get you the care you or your loved one needs.

But, unfortunately, you have to treat virtually every interaction with health care as if it were a moon shot. Ready, set, check, check, triple check, feedback, lift off!

This goes for everything from getting the results from a simple blood test to making sure the dentist is doing the root canal in the tooth that actually needs it, to ensuring that the pathology report that was read to you over the phone was indeed yours.

A report released today by CRICO Strategies suggests that lack of effective communication involving physicians and hospitals caused  almost 2,000 patient deaths between 2009 and 2013. The analysts also found 7,000 cases in which communication failures between healthcare staff and patients or among physicians had seriously harmed patients.

The data in the report came from approximately a third of all malpractice claims in the U.S., representing a broad cross section of hospitals and medical offices, according to the report’s authors.

In one case, a nurse failed to tell a surgeon that her patient’s hematocrit, a sign of the amount of red blood cells detected in a blood test, had precipitously fallen, signaling hemorrhage.

Another case: someone with diabetes left a message for the doctor, but never got called back. Later, the patient collapsed and died from lack of insulin.

Yet another example: a woman’s diagnosis of cancer was not communicated to the patient for an entire year because her lab result wasn’t sent to her primary care provider.

The report says everything from reliance on electronic medical records to frequent interruptions in work flow, intense workloads, and top-down leadership cultures contribute to the problem.

But perhaps you’re thinking that there’s nothing you can possibly do about these mistakes. After all, how can you  prevent errors from occurring  when you don’t know much about medicine or hospitals, especially when you’re not feeling well? And if you ask too many questions, won’t the staff think you don’t trust them?

The vast majority of nurses and doctors would tell you: don’t be intimidated. Ask questions. The system isn’t perfect. And if you’re too sick to do it, ask your loved ones to speak up on your behalf.

Here are six things you can do to improve communication and health outcomes for you and for those you love, starting today:

  1. Get your own copy of every lab result and test report sent directly to you. Read it over carefully. If you have any questions, call your physician. Phone the office and make sure the physician has seen the same report you received. If you have any questions at all, make an appointment and discuss the the report in person. Ask for the results when you’re in the hospital, too.
  2. If you don’t get a call back from your physician within a reasonable time, keep calling. Do not assume that the doctor thought your health issue was unimportant. It is very likely your doctor has not gotten your message.
  3. Never be afraid to question anything. If you’re a hospital patient and someone comes with a stretcher to take you for  a test or procedure, ask about the test, who ordered it, and why. If that doesn’t make sense to you, ask to talk with the physician.
  4. Repeat to the staff why you’re there for an operation or procedure…all the way until you’re getting anesthesia. Remind the oral surgeon that “I’m here to have my very back lower right molar removed,” for example. Or, “It is my right knee they will be working on.”
  5. Any time someone would like you to swallow a pill or receive an injection or treatment, ask them what you are getting and why. If their answer doesn’t make sense, ask them to double check, or wait until you can talk with your physician.
  6. Talk directly with your physician any time you want to know about your diagnosis and treatment plan.  “What did the tests tell you and what does that suggest we should do next?”  That question should not be communicated to anyone but the person directly responsible for your healthcare outcomes.

Yes, on the one hand, it’s too bad you have to be alert to these issues. But, there’s no downside to being actively involved in your own care. The more you know, the better. And the more you communicate, the safer you’ll be.




About Barbara Bronson Gray, RN, MN

I'm an experienced healthcare and science editor and journalist. But most of all, I'm a registered nurse with many years of experience working in hospitals. I've learned what patients and families need first hand. But I've also worked to improve hospitals and educate people about their health. I'm committed to helping people take charge of their health care and get what they need from a complex and often discouraging healthcare system.
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1 Response to Preventing Communication Failures

  1. Pingback: What Should You Know About Your Lab Results? | Take Charge of Your Healthcare

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