Dangerous medical errors are a big problem in our healthcare system, and children aren't immune. In every 15 hospital visits, one child is harmed by a medication error, according to a 2008 study by the National Initiative for Children's Health Care Quality. We all like to think that won't happen to our child. But it certainly could. My family made a visit to the children's hospital ER last weekend after my 6-year-old choked on a bite of peach. A simple X-ray confirmed that the peach bite had moved along, and we were out of there in two hours. But it's easy to see how a longer stay with more complex treatments could really increase the odds of dangerous errors, despite the good intentions of doctors and nurses.
So when I saw the press release about a new program on hospital safety for children, I sat up and paid attention. It's a child-centered version of the "Speak Up" program from the Joint Commission on Hospital Accreditation. The message: Parents need to closely monitor a child's medical care and speak up whenever anything seems amiss. Easier said than done, I know, especially when it comes to things like asking nurses and aides if they've washed their hands. But research shows that keeping a close eye on care and questioning decisions that don't seem quite right really do reduce the risk of dangerous medical errors.
Here are key points for making a hospital visit as safe as it can be:
* If you have to take your child to the emergency room, come prepared. Bring information about medications your child is already taking and about previous medical treatments.
* Ask doctors and nurses how tests and treatments will help your child. Realize that more tests or treatments are not necessarily better.
* If you don't understand what the doctors are saying, ask. This helps them recognize what you need to know to properly care for your child. If you're uncomfortable asking questions, ask a friend or family member to act as your advocate.
* Hand washing is the best way to reduce the risk of infection. If you don't see hospital staff wash their hands before touching your child, ask them if they have. Putting up a handwritten sign saying "Have you washed your hands?" also helps.
* Medication errors are the most common medical mistake. When your child is given medicine, check to make sure that it's the medicine that's been prescribed and that the dosage and frequency are correct. Never assume it must be right just because medical personnel are administering it.
* When your child is discharged, ask questions about what follow-up care is needed. Discharge papers are often confusing and contain both specific information about your child and generic information that may or may not apply to her.
* After a hospital visit, follow up with your own pediatrician.
I think my child got good care at the ER, but they did give her discharge papers suggesting she had a cold, which I don't think was true. Talking with her pediatrician after the fact helped clarify that. Our pediatrician also explained that if my daughter continues to have problems, the next step would be to see an ear, nose, and throat specialist—useful information I didn't get from the ER.
Being on the case is particularly important if your child has a chronic illness, as my colleague Sarah Baldauf explains in this article on what do to if your child needs to go to the hospital. It's always a good idea to go to a children's hospital, if your community has one. Here are the latest children's hospital rankings from U.S.News & World Report.