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Staying informed helps avoid medical 'screwups'

Let's say your son is an expert on prescription drugs who is also a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist, radio host and book author. And let's say this son accompanied you to the hospital when you needed surgery and made your medication needs and restrictions abundantly clear to your doctors.

You might think things would go pretty well for you.

You would not, you might think, become one of the estimated 98,000 people who die in U.S. hospitals each year from preventable medical errors.

But that's exactly what happened to Helen Graedon, whose son Joe Graedon and daughter-in-law Teresa Graedon are known to millions from their People's Pharmacy books, columns and radio programs.

The Graedons tell Helen's story in their new book, Top Screwups Doctors Make and How to Avoid Them (Crown, $26), just out this week. But what happened to Mrs. Graedon in her last hours at Duke University Hospital in 1996 takes up only the first few pages.

The rest of the book is all about what could easily happen to you and me and anyone else we know.

Rather than suing the hospital for malpractice, the Graedons set to work on improving the place, serving on boards to boost patient safety and clinical quality, as well as advocating for patients. They acknowledge, however, that errors still happen at Duke, considered one of the nation's best medical centers.

All of which sounds so bleak that you may be thinking you've heard enough. But I hope you pick up a copy of Top Screwups, read it and use it.

We're always hearing about how we need to be well-informed patients, but what does that mean? Given that most of us didn't go to medical school, how can we even know what to ask, never mind make sense of the answers?

The Graedons' book is full of alarming data on the toll of medical errors in hospitals, and outside of them. But it's also packed with smart tips you can use to protect yourself and those you love. You can read all 250 pages, or just dip into the bits you need right now.

There are Top 10 suggestions to avoid foulups by hospitals, doctors, pharmacists — and even a list of common conditions and the ways in which their treatment often goes wrong.

Have you received a tough diagnosis, and you don't know what to do next? There are 10 questions to ask the doctor. (My favorite: How confident are you about this diagnosis?)

Or maybe your insurance company is switching you to a generic drug. How do you know whether it's really just like the brand-name?

What kinds of questions do you ask if the doctor says you need surgery? (Here's a good one: What would happen if I opt out of the procedure?)

And lest you think this book is all about blaming the doctors, how many of us are guilty of the Graedons' Top 10 Screwups Patients Make?

Ever ignored medication instructions? Failed to get a second opinion? Dodged those lifestyle changes that might work a whole lot better than any drug?

If you don't see yourself there, you're a better person than I am, and probably healthier, too.

More from

the Graedons

The People's Pharmacy column is a regular feature in the St. Petersburg Times' monthly LifeTimes section (the next issue is Oct. 26). The Graedons' weekly broadcast airs locally at 7 a.m. Saturdays on WUSF-FM 89.7. Or catch up with them online at

Staying informed helps avoid medical 'screwups' 10/07/11 [Last modified: Friday, October 7, 2011 4:30am]
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