Doctor mistakes can mean the difference between life and death, and sadly, these errors are all too common. According to a study by the Institute of Medicine, medical mistakes in hospitals alone are the eighth-leading cause of death in the United States, exceeding those by car accidents, breast cancer, and AIDS. Fortunately, there are ways to reduce your risk. Read on to find out the three most common doctor mistakes, and learn how protect yourself.

1. Misdiagnosis.

With all of the sophisticated medical exams available, it's hard to believe that misdiagnosis is still a widespread problem. But according to a National Patient Safety Foundation survey, 40 percent of people reporting a medical mistake cited a misdiagnosis or treatment error. In addition, many malpractice cases are based on misdiagnosis, and the most commonly misdiagnosed diseases include cancer, infection, appendicitis, aortic dissection, and clogged arteries. As experts explain, once doctors make a diagnosis, they may ignore information that would prove their diagnosis wrong. What's more, once one doctor has made a diagnosis, other doctors will almost always accept it as correct. If the original doctor failed to acknowledge a symptom or ask a crucial question, chances are subsequent doctors will do the same.

Protecting yourself. To avoid misdiagnosis, provide each doctor with a detailed history of your illness and as much information as possible about your symptoms. If you're not satisfied with your diagnosis, ask for more tests, and question your doctor about what else your symptoms could mean. Do not attempt to diagnose yourself, but be sure to research your symptoms and concentrate on being accurate with your doctor.

2. Incorrect assumptions.

It's no secret that medical professionals are under pressure to get you in and out of the office. In fact, a typical doctor visit may last for only 15 minutes. As a result, physicians run the risk of stereotyping patients, then making a diagnosis based on what other patients like you may have, whether it's that stomach virus that's going around or a common condition for people of your age group. In addition, doctors may listen to the first few symptoms you describe, but after that, they may lose patience (a landmark 1984 study showed that, on average, patients were interrupted 18 seconds into explaining their problems, and less than 2 percent got to finish their explanations). When a doctor has incomplete patient information, this can set the stage for misdiagnosis.

Protecting yourself. Make sure that you're able to describe all of your symptoms, even if it means having to interrupt the doctor after he or she interrupts you. To improve patient-doctor communication, prepare a detailed list of your symptoms in advance, as well as a list of questions to ask. Also make sure your doctor is aware of your medical history, including allergies, prescriptions you're taking, previous diagnoses, and lab results.

3. Medication mixups.

Doctors are notorious for their sloppy handwriting on prescriptions, and this actually leads to many medication errors. What's more, several drugs have similar names, which leads to additional confusion. For example, do you know the difference between the arthritis drug Celebrex, the anticonvulsant Cerebyx, and the antidepressant Celexa? It's easy to see that if one of these drug names was scribbled on a script, it could be mistaken for another. For this reason, the FDA has begun monitoring the names of drugs, and if they seem too similar, it attempts to get the drug agency to change the name.

Protecting yourself. Be sure your doctor communicates with you clearly about which drug you need, and double check with the pharmacist. In addition, ask your doctor and pharmacist whether there are any warnings you should be aware of; many drugs have up-to-date warnings that doctors fail to hear about because they already have a great deal of drug information memorized.