Many people may be shocked to know that an estimated 210,000 to 440,000 patients die in U.S. hospitals due to medical errors, mostly health care-associated infections and medication mistakes.

In fact, each day, approximately 1-in-25 U.S. patients acquires an infection during the course of his or her hospital care.

What can patients do to keep safe? Here are three suggestions:

First, bring a notebook and pen to the hospital with you. Anytime a nurse or physician or other health care provider tells you anything, write it down, and make sure you understand. Write down all medications, including dosage and timing.

Second, verify all medications, directions, and plans with what is in the notebook. For instance, every time someone administers a medication, even through the IV, ask what it is and how much. Check it against your notebook.

Third, be the hand washing patrol. Don’t let anyone touch you or your loved one or touch any of the equipment in the room or even put gloves on without first washing his or her hands with soap and water or using sanitizing hand gel.

While these steps are important safe guards, quality improvement strategies, such as checklists and protocols that health care systems have implemented, are also critical in assuring patient safety.

In addition, universities play an important role.

Analyses show that the root cause of 80 percent of deaths due to medical errors is poor teamwork, i.e., ineffective communication, coordination, and/or collaboration.

Health professionals generally are very dedicated to their patients, but because we are traditionally educated and trained in the silos of our separate professions, working in a team with those from other professions is not necessarily easy. Therefore, the Institute of Medicine recommends that health professionals learn how to be effective team members, especially with students from different professions and with patients through strategies called interprofessional education.

The University of New England has been at the forefront of IPE, including efforts going back 15 years. With a recent grant award from the prestigious Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation, we are expanding the efforts that were initiated on our campus, now fully integrating them into clinical settings by implementing clerkships in which students from different professions work together in the same clinical settings.

In collaboration with UNE’s Maine Area Health Education Center and Northern Maine Community College, we are holding an Interprofessional Collaborative Practice Summit on April 14 in Presque Isle with community health centers and area hospitals that are interested in hosting such teams of students or learning about this approach to team-based care.

We anticipate such student teams will start these clerkship experiences in northern Maine this fall. We hope they not only train in rural Maine, but that their experiences will result in some of them returning to practice there some day.

With 13 health professional degree programs, including medical, dental, pharmacy, nursing, physician assistant, dental hygiene, occupational therapy, physical therapy and social work, there are many ways in which these interprofessional team trainings can help fill shortages in rural Maine as well as ultimately improve patient safety, and, therefore, health and health care, across Maine.

Dora Anne Mills, MD, MPH, FAAP, is vice president for clinical affairs at the University of New England.

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