By Debbie Myers
If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it 25 times. “So, what are we operating on, Mrs. Myers?” Obligingly, I always answered, “My right foot,” but I’m really thinking “Please tell me you know.” From the insurance company, to the admissions clerk, the pre-op nurse, the anesthesiologist and, finally, the surgeon; the question was asked over and over again prior to the surgical repair of – yes – my right foot.
As annoying (and somewhat comical) the continuous questioning became, I consider myself among one of the lucky ones for having a system of providers committed to preventing wrong-site surgeries. The Joint Commission, a national group that accredits hospitals, issued a Universal Protocol for hospitals in 2003 which requires pre-procedure verification, site marking, and a time out for the surgical team to make sure all of their ducks are in a row. As added precaution, Medicare came along in 2008 and included wrong-site surgery in its list of “never events.” These are errors deemed so egregious that they should never occur, and Medicare will not pay providers if one takes place. With Medicare’s financial incentive and some basic, common sense check-listing, a patient should feel confident that wrong-site surgeries are a thing of the past. Right?
Sadly, this is not the case. In an article published this summer in Kaiser Health News, the author states that “some researchers and patient safety experts say the problem of wrong-site surgery has not improved and may be getting worse.” The article goes on to site issues such as physicians refusing to comply with timeouts, surgical team fears of speaking up, lack of real punishment by hospitals or the legal system and time pressures to conduct as many surgeries as possible. Yet, in cases where the rules are adhered to, wrong-site surgeries decrease.
The medical and healthcare professions have got to get its arms around the serious issue of medical errors. It’s an enormous team effort that requires everyone involved to participate, including the patient. As I prepared for my surgery, I knew I had responsibilities too to ensure my safety. Here’s a checklist I created for myself that you might find helpful:
- Have someone with you at doctor appointments and the day of surgery – a family member or friend. Ask them to write everything down and to ask the questions you are forgetting to ask.
- If the doctor or healthcare professional does not ask the “So, what are we operating on?” question, ask it yourself. Help them with their own checklist.
- Make a list of every medication you take, and bring it with you to doctor appointments and to the hospital on surgery day. Make sure you know what medications to take the day of surgery and what, if any, should be taken and avoided after surgery. Don’t forget to include any supplements.
- Ask family members, physicians and nurses to wash their hands or use disposable gloves before touching you. Really, it’s OK to do that. Infections can kill you.
- Make sure your physician marks the site of your surgery. I am still trying to wash off the arrows and stars, but who cares. My doctor got it right! And, for that, I am grateful.