How to Needle Your Doctor to Stay Safe

By Andrew Schorr

A few years ago we saw the shocking report that almost 100,000 Americans had died in 1999 from medical mistakes. And now, with a bigger population and more aggressive medical treatment and testing, it is estimated as many as 200,000 Americans are dying a year from mistakes.

On top of that, defensive medicine practices are resulting in more medical tests than are unnecessary. This is not making us safer but instead is introducing more mistakes through misdirected or unnecessary treatment from false positives.

Thankfully many doctors and hospitals are working hard to bring the terrifying number of mistakes down and make changes. They want to head off deadly errors and, for example, prevent a surgeon from operating on the wrong side of your brain because the posted CT scan image was backwards, or prevent you getting a prescription that you are allergic to, or prevent the symptoms of serious illness from being missed.

But what can YOU do to prevent mistakes? Some patients who need knee surgery have taken the unusual step before surgery of using a marking pen to put a big X on the knee that needs repair.

What you can do is much simpler. It starts by asking your doctor or nurse if they have washed their hands before touching you. That's why sinks are in exam rooms. Ask them to use it.

Don't be shy. Remember, sick people go to the doctor. And your doctor was probably just touching one of them. Do you want their sickness to become yours?

It is okay to "needle" them. Patient Power contributor Christopher Springmann tells you how he gets his doctor on board in this brief video:

Think about this: where do resistant bacteria like to hang out? Hospitals and clinics! That's why the risk of getting an infection after surgery is way too high at many hospitals. So, beyond routine care at the clinic, if you are considering elective surgery, where you have it done matters. Not just which doctor you choose, but whether the facility where the surgery is performed is safer than another with a lower infection rate.

You can look this up on hospital association sites in your state and you can ask the hospital before you agree to be admitted. Inevitably you will see a doctor or may need surgery. It should make you well, not put your life at risk. While we must expect our doctors and hospitals to put a premium on patient safety, it is up to us to do everything we can as well.

About the author:

Andrew Schorr is a medical journalist, cancer survivor and founder of Patient Power, a one-of-a-kind company bringing in-depth information to patients with cancer and chronic illness. Audio and video programs, plus transcripts, help patients make informed decisions to support their health in partnership with their medical team. Patient Power is at and on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.

Schorr is also the author of "The Web Savvy Patient: An Insider's Guide to Navigating the Internet When Facing Medical Crisis" found at


Medical errors kill almost 100,000 Americans a year, National Institutes of Health, BMJ v.319(7224); Dec 11, 1999, accessed online 11/1/12 at

More Treatment, More Mistakes, Article by Sanjay Gupta, New York Times, Published July 31, 2012, Accessed online on 11/1/12 at

Reviewed Nov 1, 2012
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith