April 20, 2006

Be Assertive to Stay Safe in the Hospital

By Megan Rauscher

NEW YORK -- It's estimated that every year as many as 2 million patients in the US contract an infection while in the hospital, and that 90,000 patients die as a result. Additionally, some 98,000 people die each year due to medical errors made in the hospital.

What can you do to protect yourself?

When it comes to infection, "the number one thing you can do is to make everyone who walks into your room wash their hands," said Betty Hoeffner of Chicago.

"Whether it's a doctor, a nurse, or a friend - make them wash their hands before they touch you. Most hospital rooms have special gel to clean the hands or a sink in the room," Hoeffner told Reuters Health.

Hoeffner is executive producer of an award-winning video called "Things You Should Know Before Entering the Hospital" available at http://patientsafetyvideo.com. The video comes with a safety checklist to take with you to the hospital.

In the film, a nurse says she's never been asked by a patient to wash her hands, but she'd gladly comply with the request.

Hoeffner told Reuters Health that the film's editor who acquired a knee infection while in the hospital was the inspiration for the film.

She explained that after an ultrasound of the knee, the nurse went to wipe off the ultrasound gel with a towel, dropped the towel on the floor, and then picked it up to start wiping the knee. It dawned on this person that "most people would not know to tell the nurse not to use that towel," Hoeffner said.

So tip number two: "Don't let anyone put anything on your body that is dirty," she said.

And beware of doctors' neckties. They are loaded with germs that could make you sick. "If a doctor has a tie, make sure that he puts it into his coat before he bends over to touch you," Hoeffner advises.

Aside from steering clear of infections, having a patient advocate with you 24-7 while in the hospital is another good way to play it safe, and one that is catching on.

A patient advocate can be a family member or someone for hire -- "like nurses that have quit being nurses and have decided to become patient advocates because they know what goes on in the hospital," Hoeffner said. Advocates ask questions on your behalf and double-check everything. They are not shy or easily intimidated by hospital personnel, Hoeffner said.

It's estimated that 70 percent of people enter the hospital through the emergency department "so people need to plan ahead for a hospital stay," she added.

"Human error is a fact in healthcare just as in the rest of life, and we must all be educated on what to be watchful of regarding things that might go wrong," said former American Hospital Association attorney Martin J. Hatlie, now president of Partnership for Patient Safety, a patient-centered initiative to advance the reliability of healthcare systems worldwide.