Hospitals can save your life but, ironically, you put your life at risk by going to the hospital. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go when you need hospital care. It just means you need to be informed.
Here’s what you need to know
1. Hospitals make deadly mistakes
Medical errors are the third leading cause of death. No, that’s not hyperbole. It’s from research published in the prestigious British Medical Journal. What’s particularly shocking about this finding is that researchers looked only at hospitals; they didn’t factor in deaths at outpatient clinics, nursing homes, etc.
Another study, this one in Health Affairs, estimates just over 1 percent of hospital patients die each year because of medical errors.
2. Medication errors affect almost everyone
Drug errors may be the most common of all medical errors, especially in hospitals. Perhaps unsurprising to anyone who’s had to help an elderly parent manage their prescription – and non-prescription – drugs, medication-related errors are a top preventable cause of harm. They result in longer stays and are a leading cause of avoidable re-admissions, according to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.
An Annals of Internal Medicine report found that about half of all patients discharged from the hospital had clinically important medication errors. The most common: wrong dosage and infusion rate. On top of that many – perhaps most – patients miss their regular medication while they are in the hospital, according to the Journal of Hospital Medicine.
3. Antibiotic-resistant infections are growing
Superbugs – strains of bacteria resistant to even the most powerful antibiotics – are moving faster than our health care system’s ability to tackle them, putting patients further at risk.
Disturbingly, bacteria, including these superbugs, are everywhere – especially medical devices, equipment, and supplies. Stethoscopes, computer keyboards, thermometers, stethoscopes, endoscopes, white coats, bed linen, bed rails and elevator buttons, bedside lockers, infusion pumps, door handles, and even the nurse-call button may be reservoirs of infection-causing bacteria, according to the Journal of Hospital in Infection Control.
And consider this: You may be the problem. A seemingly minor pre-surgery infection could become much worse or increase your risk of new infection. (And there’s always the chance of increasing the risk for other patients.)
You can take steps to protect yourself or your loved one. Make sure everyone near the patient washes their hands. Doctors, nurses, and any staff persons are supposed to wash their hands before and after touching patients. If you don’t see that being done by someone who is about to handle you, ask.
Here are a few others:
- Ask to postpone surgery if you have any type of infection.
- IVs and catheters can lead to infections, so ask each day if they are still needed.
- Consider bringing alcohol and bleach wipes for your bed rails, your phone, etc.
- Put the bed at a 30-degree angle to help prevent hospital-acquired pneumonia.
4. Your care is uncoordinated
While you’re hospitalized, you’ll encounter various healthcare professionals, most of whom will add information to your chart. But not all of them will add complete information. This, coupled with poor communication, leads to uncoordinated care. Simply put, the left hand doesn’t always know what the right hand is doing.
One cause of this problem nurse understaffing. Research (including studies in Critical Care Medicine and The Lancet) makes it clear that higher nurse-to-patient ratios mean fewer patient deaths.
How do you know if your care is uncoordinated? One possible sign is repeated tests and procedures. Some tests do need to be repeated – like blood draws. But being scheduled for the same x-ray multiple times may represent a failure to communicate. If you think your care is poorly coordinated, request for a case manager, patient advocate, or social worker to help sort things out.
5. It’s not your fault, but take charge anyway
Despite all this, we continue to see a “blame the patient” mentality. If only the patient had been more compliant, more literate, etc., we wouldn’t have these problems. That’s simply not the case. Many of these situations are out of your control.
That said, as we note above, there are things you can do. Perhaps the most important is to have an advocate. If you are in the hospital, try to have a friend or family member on hand, especially on weekends. If it’s a loved one who’s the patient, you can be an advocate. Ask questions. Take notes. Be engaged – even be annoying. There’s a life at stake.
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