Educating Patients to Protect Themselves

By Jeremy Smerd

Jun. 22, 2007

Some employers are trying to change the health system to prevent medical errors from occurring. Others may opt to provide employees with tools that will help them make better decisions about their medical care.

Ilene Corina’s son died from a medical error more than a decade ago. Now she helps run Pulse, an organization that provides education programs she refers to as the “driver’s ed of patient safety.” The programs run a half-hour to a half-day and are taught to “the general public wherever they congregate.” Pulse has taught community groups, schools and the AARP. The organization would like to expand the course to employees in the same way that employers teach workplace safety and nondiscrimination.

Pulse covers topics on health literacy such as how to avoid infections, where to find how many times a doctor has performed a certain procedure, what criteria patients should look for in a hospital and how to check medication to make sure it has been correctly prescribed and dispensed. The programs also encourage patients to ask questions and become more involved in their health care and teach people how to become patient-safety advocates for friends and family members who are hospitalized during an emergency.

Corina, a resident of Wantagh, New York, on Long Island, believes employees who take the free course should get a discount on their health care premiums, just as teenagers who take driver’s education classes get reduced auto insurance rates. In the long run, doing so would reduce costs associated with medical errors, she says.

“When my son died, my employer let me take weeks off. My husband took even more off because he had a breakdown,” she says. “But employers are not looking at it as a result of a medical error; they are looking at it as a sick day.”

The skills Corina teaches now are ones she wishes she had when her son was admitted to the hospital in 1990 to have his tonsils removed. It’s among the most common procedures, yet her son bled to death from a botched tonsillectomy and a subsequent infection.

“How am I supposed to know that people die from tonsillectomies?” she says. If she had known that, she says, she would have demanded more information and “maybe he wouldn’t have died.” More information is at www.pulse

Organizations like the National Patient Safety Foundation are also clearinghouses for educational tools.

Helen Haskell has become a more forceful advocate of patient safety after her son died from a medical error in a South Carolina hospital. She hopes employers agree that harmful errors can be prevented if patients are educated to be consumers of safer health care.

“My son had essentially a cosmetic procedure that was much riskier than we realized,” she says. “There was medical literature documenting the risk, but we just didn’t understand the risk. It’s true of most people who have surgery.”

Health insurers, as well as some employers and consumer-oriented Web sites, are providing more information on the quality of hospitals and doctors. Philadelphia-based health insurance company Cigna offers reduced costs to members who go to doctors and hospitals that are recognized for the quality and safety of their health care by the Leapfrog Group and the National Committee for Quality Assurance—organizations focused on improving the quality of health care. Cigna’s Web site also ranks specialists and hospitals according to how they perform.

“What we do is try to raise the odds that folks can avoid medical errors,” says Cigna spokesman Joe Mondy.

Most patients, however, are unaware that the rankings exist, Corina says. She believes employees need basic training in how to approach health care decisions.

“Employers need to make sure their employees are safe,” Corina says. “The way they do that is to make sure their employees have knowledge.”

Workforce Management, June 11, 2007, p. 18Subscribe Now!

Jeremy Smerd writes for Crain’s New York Business, a sister publication of Workforce Management.

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