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Iowa readers may be surprised to learn that medical errors are the third leading cause of death in the United States. However, patients can reduce their risk of harm by educating themselves and learning to spot the situations where medical mistakes are more likely to happen.

For example, medication mistakes are a frequent cause of patient harm. These mistakes can occur in a variety of ways, such as when doctors prescribe the wrong drug, pharmacists put the incorrect label on a drug bottle, or nurses administer the wrong medication. Patients can help protect themselves by asking questions about every drug they are given or arranging for a friend or family member to act as their advocate when they are incapacitated, such as when they are sedated for surgery.

Health care-associated infections are another top form of patient harm. These happen when a doctor or nurse contaminates things like central lines, catheters, ventilators or incision sites, letting dangerous bacteria enter a patient’s body. Patients can help protect themselves by asking questions about sterilization procedures and speaking up if they see a member of medical staff do something that could lead to contamination. Finally, surgical errors are also a top cause of patient harm. These mistakes can occur when a surgeon botches a procedure, operates on the wrong area of the body or even leaves an instrument or sponge in the patient’s body. Patients can help avoid these situations by researching the safety record of the surgeon and hospital before undergoing a procedure.

Iowa patients who are harmed by medical errors have legal rights. An attorney may review a patient’s case, explain all legal remedies available and help obtain relief. One option may be to file a medical malpractice claim against the doctor responsible for the medical error, which might lead to compensation for medical expenses, pain and suffering, lost wages and more.