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Danger in the Hospital: It's Worse Than You Think

In May, when Sean Williams’ 78-year-old father, Alan, took two sudden falls, he did the right thing: He called the doctor to report he was in terrible pain -- pain that was bad enough to wake him from a deep sleep. Yet two doctors prescribed pain pills and sent him home without performing a physical exam. It took a third doctor (seeing him for an unrelated condition) to realize something was seriously wrong and order x-rays and a CT scan. At which point, it was revealed he’d broken his back in five places. But it turned out those mistakes were just the beginning.

Once in the hospital, his wife arrived to visit him post-surgery and found him vomiting wretchedly. A nurse had given him 17 pills -- his entire day’s medication regimen -- all at once on an empty stomach. The nurse’s explanation: “I was instructed to give him ‘all’ his medications before breakfast.” Later the Williams’ learned that the medication overdose could have been fatal if Alan’s body hadn’t rejected the medications.

Nursing instruction mistakes and medication mistakes are two of the most common types of hospital error according to The Leapfrog Group, a not-for-profit organization that recently issued Hospital Safety Scores to more than 2600 hospitals across the country. Each grade, from A to F, represents the hospital’s overall patient safety. Misdiagnosis and treatment for the wrong condition are also much more common than they should be. And stories of patients left too long in the ER are so common that many states have convened panels to look into the problem.

But there are many other types of mistakes that are less well known. Look at the criteria listed by Hospital Safety Score and you’ll see that lungs collapse during routine procedures, antibiotics aren’t given quickly enough to prevent post-surgical infection, pressure ulcers develop when patients aren’t turned frequently, foreign objects are left in the body after surgery, and catheters are left in too long, triggering infection.

And then there are the mistakes that occur due to mix-ups of patient records. One woman reported being hospitalized for pneumonia, then discovering she was in the lung transplant ward. Another didn’t know her chart mistakenly listed her as diabetic until she was served a diabetic meal.

These types of errors are much more common than we’re led to believe when we check in at medical reception. The Institute of Medicine (IOM) reports that 1.5 million people are injured every year by medical mistakes. While most of these errors eventually get fixed, close to 100,000 people die each year due to hospital medical errors.

And consider this: These are just the errors that get reported. According to a new report issued last week by the Inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Service, more than 85 percent of hospital errors go unreported by hospital employees.

In Sean Williams’ case, the family switched her father to a new facility and he’s recovering well. But the family is left with the knowledge that without their loving and diligent attention, he could have been one of those terrifying statistics.

Research the hospital safety scores of your local hospitals when choosing a facility. It’s also important to have a health-care advocate while you’re in the hospital, as Alan Williams did. These steps could make a lifesaving difference.