Most people make an assumption that they’re safe when they check into a hospital, but mistakes do happen – sometimes with serious or even fatal consequences.
You can protect yourself if you know what to watch out for.
Trap #1: Being mistaken for another patient.
This occurs more often than you might think. Once you get your room assignment, ask if another patient on the ward has a last name that’s the same as – or similar to – your own. If so, ask to be moved to another ward. Such a request might raise a few eyebrows, but your life may be at stake.
Make sure a sign with your name and room number is posted directly over your bed. Ask a friend or family member to spend as much time with you as possible throughout your hospital stay – asking questions, insisting that you get proper care, etc. Your advocate should make it clear that he/she expects to be consulted on all treatment decisions.
It’s not unheard of for surgeons to operate on the wrong side of the body, take out the wrong organ, etc. To avoid such errors, meet with your surgeon prior to surgery. Discuss the procedure in detail, including the exact body part being operated on. For absolute peace of mind, a few hours before surgery, use a felt-tip pen to write “CUT HERE” on the incision site.
Trap #2: Catching an infection.
One in five people catch some sort of infection while hospitalized. Each year, 80,000 patients die as a result of such nosocomial infections. In the US, dirty hands and medical equipment are the usual culprits.
To protect yourself, wash your own hands frequently, and politely insist that all doctors and nurses wash their hands before touching you. Alert the staff immediately if your room seems dirty or if you run out of soap or paper towels. Make sure that any equipment that comes into contact with your skin has been swabbed with alcohol (or covered with a fresh disposable plastic shield). This goes for stethoscopes, thermometers, otoscopes (used to check the ears), infusion pumps, hemodialysis equipment and urinary catheters.
Beware intensive care units (ICUs). Because ICU beds are so close to one another, infection risk is far greater in an ICU than in a private or semiprivate room.
Trap #3: Getting the wrong medication.
A nurse might inadvertently give you the wrong drug or give you the right medicine at the wrong dose, wrong time or through the wrong route. Each year, tens of thousands of hospital patients die as a result of such medication errors. Errors account for 40% of all adverse drug reactions in US hospitals, according to a Harvard study.
To protect yourself, learn the names, dosages, dosing schedule and correct administration route of any drugs prescribed for you. If you’re given a pill or liquid that differs from what you’ve been getting, double-check with the nurse before taking it. Alert the nurse at once if you experience any strange reaction to a drug. Be sure any allergies are listed on your medical chart.
Trap #4: Being robbed or assaulted.
With all the hospital staffers, patients, family members, delivery people, etc., roaming the hospital, it’s difficult for hospital security to keep track of everyone. Emergency rooms are especially dangerous. Over half of all hospital violence occurs in the ER. One in three ER patients is armed. One in four is on some kind of illicit drug. If you’re going to the ER, bring a companion. While there, don’t talk to or stare at anyone who is tense, loud or belligerent. Quietly alert a security guard or desk attendant instead.
Hospital parking lots can be dangerous, too. If you feel nervous, ask a hospital security guard to escort you to and from your car. If you’re staying in a hospital room, inquire ahead of time about security arrangements. Before going to sleep, make sure that the bathroom light is on and that the nurse call button is within easy reach.