How to Make your Hospital Stay Safer by Rebecca J. Britton

By Rebecca J. Britton

A HealthGrades study in 2004 which encompassed Medicare patients in all 50 states found that nearly 200,000 Americans died each year in 2000, 2001 and 2002 because of in-hospital medical errors. That is a staggering statistic which makes hospital errors one of the top ten causes of death in our country!

Some of these problems are related, at least in part, to inadequate staffing, budget cuts, and, in some cases, poor or inadequate training and individual failure to follow established protocols and safety systems. There are numerous studies trying to identify the reasons for this crisis in our health care system and many medical professionals and hospitals are working to find ways to prevent these deadly errors. Until answers and solutions to this crisis are found, however, here are a few helpful tips to keep in mind when you or a loved one are hospitalized:

TIP#1: KEEP A "CHEAT SHEET"

Keep a card in your wallet with the name and number of your family doctor and any doctors you regularly see as well as your pharmacist. Include a list of any conditions you have and any medications you take regularly along with the dosages (include any vitamins, supplements or herbal remedies). Be sure to also include in large red print any allergies you have to medications or to foods. Keep the information updated and record when it was last updated.

TIP #2: HAVE SOMEONE THERE

Anyone who is in the hospital should have someone with them, if possible, at all times. That person should be prepared to be an advocate for the patient -- asking questions and politely pushing for answers. That person should be on top of what the patient needs for comfort and ensuring those needs are met by healthcare providers.

TIP #3: ASK QUESTIONS/SEEK EXPLANATIONS

Don't be afraid to ask questions. A patient is entitled to understand the treatment he or she is receiving and why it is the recommended course of action. The only way to make intelligent choices about the care you or your loved one receives is to make sure your health care providers answer your questions and explain things so you can understand them. A patient must be part of their own healthcare team!

TIP #4: KEEP NOTES

It is helpful to keep notes. Notes will help you remember what you have been told, what treatments you have had, and what problems, concerns or questions you have for the doctors treating you. Sometimes there may be several doctors treating you or your loved one and it is hard to keep them all straight. Notes will also help you to inform one doctor of what another may have told you as well as memorialize what has occurred so far so you can answer questions your family may have.

TIP #5: WRIST BANDS ARE IMPORTANT!

Patients wear wrist bands for a very good reason —- so they can be identified. Make sure care providers check the wrist band and confirm they are giving the right treatment to the right patient. This is important for medications, therapies, tests, and any other kind of care. The only way to confirm they are giving the right care to the right patient is to confirm it on the wrist band. Make them check it.

TIP #6: DOUBLE CHECK MEDICATIONS

Before taking any pills from a nurse, nurse assistant, or other care provider, make sure the care provider explains what specific medication is being given and what it is for.

A large percentage of deaths due to hospital errors involve medication errors. For this reason always know what a care provider is giving for medication. This goes for pills as well as shots or IV drip medication.

TIP #7: HAVE YOU WASHED YOUR HANDS?

You will notice in many hospitals they have the squirt cans of foam sanitizer attached to the wall outside hospital rooms and at various places around the hospital. DO NOT BE AFRAID TO ASK A HEALTHCARE PROFESSIONAL IF THEY HAVE WASHED THEIR HANDS. If you haven't seen them wash either at the sink or at the foam sanitizer when they come into your room, ASK. Unwashed hands can infect an IV site, a surgical site or an open wound, and the bugs found around hospitals can be lethal.

TIP#8: TESTS AND TEST RESULTS

When you or a loved one have a test performed, do not assume "no news is good news." No news could mean that someone failed to print the results or someone failed to notify anyone of the results. If the doctor has not mentioned the results of a test that has been performed, ASK.

TIP #9: DO NOT BE AFRAID TO COMPLAIN

A patient has a right to expect good care and if they are not getting good care they have a right to speak up. If a patient is having a problem with a healthcare provider either not being responsive to their needs or being rude or inappropriate, they or their advocate can ask to speak to the head nurse on their particular hospital floor and make their complaints known and expect them to be acted upon. If no satisfaction or change comes from that effort, the next level is usually "patient relations." If "patient relations" is not responsive to complaints, the next level is usually hospital administration.

TIP #10: GOING HOME UNDERSTAND THE PLAN

When you or your loved one are about to be discharged from the hospital, this is one of the most important times to ask questions and get answers.

•a. Who do you have to see for follow-up treatment?

•b. What medications are you supposed to take or stop taking? Should you continue taking anything you took prior to your admission to the hospital? Can you take anything else with these medications (i.e., vitamins, herbal remedies, over-the-counter medicines)?

•c. If you are not sure you can take care of yourself once you get home, make sure you speak up and either have someone stay with you or explore the possibility of some form of home health care, outpatient rehabilitation or physical or occupational therapy.

•d. Make sure you understand what supplies or equipment you may need and how to get them.

•e. Do not hesitate to call your doctor or go back to the hospital if you start feeling bad or worse after you get home.

It is important to remember that you are part of your healthcare team and you have the highest stake in the team's performance! By being engaged in your care and expecting care providers to be engaged as well, you can take part in making your stay in the hospital a safer one.