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Doctors aren't perfect, so patients must speak up

By Tammy Webber

Associated Press

CHICAGO -- Ask your surgeon to use a marker to designate the limb to be operated on. Tell someone if you think you are being given the wrong medication.

And make sure the doctors and nurses wash their hands.

Those are among the suggestions from a hospital regulatory organization that is waging a public-awareness campaign urging patients to speak up if they think their doctors are making mistakes.

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The goal is to stem the alarming number of medical errors -- from prescribing the wrong medication to operating on the wrong body part -- that kill tens of thousands of people a year.

"We're telling people if something looks funny, question it. It's OK to ask questions and expect answers,'' said Dr. Dennis O'Leary, president of the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations.

The tips will be included in brochures distributed at hospitals, doctors' offices and pharmacies as part of the "Speak Up'' campaign, and nurses and doctors will be encouraged to wear buttons bearing the slogan.

The commission sets standards for hospitals and accredits them.

While the commission routinely issues safety alerts to doctors and hospitals, this is its first attempt to reach the broader public, O'Leary said.

The campaign is in response to a 1999 Institute of Medicine study that found medical errors kill up to 98,000 people a year.

Although those numbers have been disputed, O'Leary said they are "way off the map of what is tolerable.''

As a result, he said, "we're looking at every opportunity we can possibly find to try to solve the problem.''

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He said most doctors and nurses welcome patient involvement, and "it protects physicians from making mistakes, quite frankly.''

The campaign is supported by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. The cost was not disclosed.

Dr. Sidney Wolfe, director of the consumer advocacy Public Citizen Health Research Group, said that patient involvement is a good idea, but such a campaign would be more credible if it were led by the government.

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