How to survive a stay at the hospital

A new study finds that hospital mistakes are more common and less reported than anyone ever suspected. The research concludes that about one in every three people will encounter some kind of mistake while in a hospital and that current detection methods miss 90 percent of those errors.

CBS News Medical Correspondent Dr. Jennifer Ashton tells "Early Show" Business and Economics Correspondent Rebecca Jarvis how this new study impacts patient safety.

"You have to remember most people go to the hospital to get well, and the fact of the matter is that medical errors in a hospital setting could wind up killing you. So this is a problem that costs our hate care system about $17 billion dollars a year," Ashton points out.

Special Section: Dr. Jennifer Ashton

Video: How to avoid hospital mishaps

Ashton has a couple of theories on why this is occurs - "number one, patients going into the hospital today, probably are sicker than they were in the past. Sicker patients, more prone to complications. There are many people involved in the care of these patients. From when they hit the door, more people involved, more risk of human error, and lastly, our methods for reporting and tracking these errors have gotten much more sensitive. So, when you look more closely for something, you're going to find more of it," she explains.

According to Ashton, it's estimated that there are 1.5 million medication errors in this country every year.

What contributes to this troubling number? Ashton pointed out that medication names sound similar, therefore that increases the risk and can also cause dosing errors.

"We've heard before in the news, people given lethal doses of medications. This has almost happened to me in the hospital," she said. "If it can happen to a doctor, it truly can happen to anyone. And lastly, there can be allergy mistakes. The reason doctors and nurses will ask so many times what your allergies are is to try and foolproof this type of mistake."

Earlier this year, an L.A. hospital put a kidney into the wrong person during a kidney transplant. As a surgeon who operates on patients all of the time what does Ashton make of this?

"This is probably one of the most dreaded mistakes that can go on in a hospital, for obvious reasons," she said. "There are a couple of things that we do when we're bringing a patient to the operating room. The first thing is, if you're having surgery on a body part where you have another one of them, like a knee, a kidney, a wrist, the surgeon has to initial with a pen your skin before you go to the operating room."

"Once we bring a patient in to the operating room we do what's called a 'time-out,' which is very similar to a pre-flight checklist that a pilot will do. Everything stops in the operating room," she adds. "The circulating nurse has to identify that you have the right patient, the right surgeon, who's having the right operation. And lastly, as a patient, you should say, 'Just want to confirm, this is the surgery I'm having.' You can't be too safe."

There's a constant flow of traffic from many different doctors and people who come in and out of the room as you wait to go into surgery. What are the best tips for patients and their families to protect themselves or their loved ones during a hospital stay?

"Well, the first thing is if you go to a big, academic medical center there will be residents involved in your care. These are real doctors, but they're on a hierarchy system," Ashton explains. "So they are reporting to a chief doctor under your care. Get everyone's name; find out what level they are."

Ashton also suggests when you go to a hospital it's a good idea to bring a printed copy of your own medical history with all your allergies and all your medical problems.

She said, "Don't be afraid to ask questions. You're not going to insult or offend anyone. And lastly, always reconfirm the medications, the treatment that you're having. You can't be too safe. Your life is at stake."