Patient safety is one of the hot button topics in our ongoing national discussion about the daunting problems facing our dysfunctional, inefficient and unfair healthcare system. To bring visibility to the issue, the week of March 4th is designated Patient Safety Awareness Week, with the slogan “Be Aware for Safe Care.” Really, most Americans generally expect safe care, particularly in a hospital setting, if they or their loved ones must contend with a medical crisis.

But consider just these few shocking statistics:
• A hospital patient, on average, is subject to one medication error per day.
• Every six minutes a patient dies in an American hospital from a hospital acquired infection - an infection acquired after admission--usually from a healthcare worker’s failure to simply wash his or her hands.
• More people die in a given year as a result of preventable medical errors than from car accidents, breast cancer or AIDS.

These statistics make it very clear why we all must be very aware of the real dangers every patient faces in a busy hospital and become active and engaged partners with our doctors and nurses to help ensure safe care. But how do we do this?

Patients going to the hospital today have no idea what they will confront until already trapped in the trenches: the frantic pace; the fragmented care by a rotating cast of rushed doctors and stressed-out nurses and the endless series of treatments and medications often without adequate explanation and oversight. When you are feeling sick and vulnerable, it is hard to imagine that you must also be alert to all aspects of your care to protect yourself from unnecessary harm. The very idea can seem overwhelming. But you can improve the quality of your care by taking a few important steps to help prevent the main causes for medical error--failures in communication between your doctors and nurses and when safe, sanitary practices are overlooked.

The most important action you can take as a patient or caregiver to improve and safeguard your care is to become actively involved in communicating and collaborating with your doctors and nurses. Make sure you understand exactly what is wrong with you and the why of every treatment and medication that you receive while in the hospital. Ask questions--and ask your doctors and nurses to explain things to you in plain language not medical jargon so you can understand.

Trust your instinct. If something seems wrong to you, speak up. It is always you, the patient, who has the most at stake in any medical crisis and the best way to improve your outcome is not to be a passive patient but an active player on your healthcare team.

By being aware you can, indeed, ensure safer care.