From medication mix-ups to surgical errors, dangerous falls to deadly infections, hospital hazards can be harmful to your health and can even threaten your life. Here’s how to stay safe and get well. While some risks are beyond your control, these lifesaving tips will help protect against some of the biggest perils you face in the hospital.
Errors in the hospital
As many as 440,000 Americans die every year from medical errors and infections contracted in the hospital. Combined, they are the third leading cause of death in the United States. Your best defense? Take charge of your care as much as possible. Ask lots of questions, take tons of notes, and have a family member or friend there to advocate on your behalf.
Don’t just pick the closest facility
In an emergency, of course, you want to get to the nearest hospital—fast. But if you’re scheduling a surgery or procedure, selecting the right hospital, medical center, or surgery center could save your life, even if it means paying more to go out of network. A 2016 study One found that patients at the worst American hospitals were three times more likely to die during their stay (and 13 times more likely to have complications) than patients with the same health problem at the best hospitals.
Ask these three key questions:
How many times last year did the hospital do the surgery you’re getting? Multiple studies show that the more often a hospital does a procedure, the better the outcome will be. You are much more likely to have complications—sometimes fatal ones—in a facility that performs the surgery only once or twice a year.
Does the ICU have critical-care specialists? Called intensivists, these specialists are experts on caring for the sickest patients. Studies show they decrease medication errors by 22 to 70 percent and complications by 50 percent. More important, your risk of death drops 30 percent if an intensivist manages your care.
What is the hospital’s rate of catheter infections in the ICU? Low numbers show that the hospital has good safety and quality management. Choose a hospital that has fewer than two bloodstream infections for every 1,000 days someone in the hospital has a catheter.
Always ask, “Is there anything else it might be?”
According to Hardeep Singh, MD, MPH, a patient-safety researcher at the Michael E. DeBakey Veterans Affairs Medical Center and Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. This crucial question encourages your hospital health-care providers to think about other possibilities, helping to cut the risk of a diagnostic mistake. As many as 160,000 patients in the medical system die or suffer a significant permanent injury every year because a condition is misdiagnosed or missed, according to a report in BMJ Quality and Safety. Such mistakes are especially common in the fast-paced environment of the ER. A patient may come in with a headache, receive a migraine diagnosis—and suffer a stroke hours later. Watch out for these secrets hospitals don’t want to tell you (but every patient should know.)
Consider a second opinion
If you’ve been diagnosed with a serious, complex, or rare condition—or if you have any doubts about your diagnosis—seek out another doctor’s insights before starting treatment. Research shows there’s a 20 to 30 percent chance the second doctor’s opinion will be different from the first’s. Even if the diagnosis is the same, you may learn new information about your treatment options.
Call a bedside huddle
If your case is complex, ask whether your doctor can get all your care providers together to brainstorm possible diagnoses and come up with a plan for care, suggests Dr. Pronovost. One study found that bringing providers from different specialties together to talk about specific patients cut the number of adverse events almost in half. Happily, this has become an increasingly common practice in many hospitals.
Take charge of your test results
If you have a CT scan or a biopsy in the hospital, find out when the results will be in and how you will be informed—and make a note to follow up. Also, ask the imaging center or lab to send the results to any doctors working on your case. Research shows that about 7 percent of abnormal lab tests and 8 percent of abnormal scans get lost in follow-up. Don’t assume no news is good news, and this is why you should never have surgery in the evening.
Be smart about antibiotics
Antibiotics fight infections, but they can cause them too. Because the drugs kill the protective bacteria in your gut, they increase your risk of picking up Clostridium difficile (C. diff), one of the deadliest hospital-acquired infections, says Arjun Srinivasan, MD, a medical epidemiologist at the CDC. That’s why the CDC no longer recommends antibiotics after an operation if you have no signs of infection. A 2017 study found that when doctors in British hospitals cut back on prescribing Cipro, Levaquin, and other broad-spectrum antibiotics, the rate of infections from C. diff bacteria dropped a whopping 80 percent. “If your doctor prescribes you an antibiotic in the hospital, ask what infection you have and how long you need to take the antibiotic,” Dr. Srinivasan says.
Tell your doctor about diarrhea
Loose stools are the first symptom of attacks the intestines. You may feel like you are embarrassed to share this with your doctor, but it’s really important to tell them, especially if you’re getting or recently had an antibiotic.
Brush your teeth
Bacteria in your mouth can find their way into your lungs, causing a nasty case of hospital-acquired pneumonia. Studies have found that good oral care while in the hospital cuts your risk by more than a third. If you’re the family member of a patient who can’t take care of himself or herself, ask the nurse to show you how to use a toothbrush or foam swab sticks to clean the inside of your loved one’s mouth, and do it at least twice a day.
Get your flu and pneumonia shots
Ideally, you should get these vaccinations before you land in the hospital, but you can also ask for them once you’ve been admitted. Most insurance plans will still pick up the cost. The CDC recommends getting two different pneumococcal shots at least one year apart if you are 65 or older, smoke, or have a chronic condition that weakens your immune system.
Don’t shave in the area of your surgery (and don’t allow the nurse do it either)
Shaving leaves microscopic cuts and nicks that can become bacterial breeding grounds. The CDC now recommends that hair near your surgery site not be removed unless it will interfere with the operation. Surgeons usually use clippers if they have to shave you.
Shower with a disinfectant before you go to the hospital.
According to Bratzler, DO, MPH, medical director at the Oklahoma Foundation for Medical Quality in Oklahoma City.Pick up some Hibiclens, a powerful antiseptic soap that will kill germs on your skin, at your local pharmacy, and shower with it at home the night before and the morning of your surgery. Use it instead of your regular soap or shower gel. With this, what you’re hoping to do is leave a little residue on your skin that will help to keep you clean during the entire process.