Spending time in the hospital is scary enough without having to think about your doctor making a mistake or an infection keeping you there longer than expected. But with some estimates linking more than 400,000 annual premature deaths to preventable errors in hospitals, you can’t afford to ignore the risks.
Despite current error rates, hospitals are increasingly safe, according to a report from the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Financial incentives for patient safety and quality as well as public reporting of hospital ratings have pushed the needle toward better patient care. Even so, you can make your stay safer by taking an active role in your care.
“I think hospitals should bear the primary responsibility for keeping patients safe during a hospital stay,” says David Westfall Bates, a patient safety expert and chief innovation officer at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “When they are able to participate, it definitely also helps to engage patients and families to improve safety.”
What you can do:
1. Check hospital ratings and infection rates.
Staying safe begins before you’re admitted. It may not be possible to hospital-shop in an emergency, but you do have more options when you’re admitted for a scheduled procedure. Check Leapfrog’s Hospital Safety Score for facilities in your area. This score, which is based on both preventive efforts and safety outcomes, grades hospitals from A to F. Once you’ve found a highly rated hospital, remember to check whether it is covered within your health insurance network.
2. Know who is coordinating your care.
During a hospital stay, nurses, doctors and technicians will be in and out of your room providing various aspects of your care. Knowing who’s in charge makes it easier to determine whom to ask when you have questions and whom to talk to when something isn’t right. Find out in advance if your primary doctor will be directing your care, or if a hospitalist will be in charge. In the scrum of medical providers you see, this could be the most important point of contact.
3. Bring someone with you.
Advocating for your own safety isn’t always possible, says Bates, who points out patients in the hospital are often not physically or mentally able to participate in their care. It’s during these times that having a friend or family member there to act on your behalf can ensure that your best interests are kept in mind even when you can’t articulate them.
4. Don’t be afraid to ask health care workers to wash their hands.
At any given time, an estimated 1 in 25 hospital patients have hospital-acquired infections. These are illnesses they didn’t arrive with— such things as pneumonia, stomach viruses, urinary tract infections and bloodstream infections. Simple hand washing can go a long way in preventing these infections, and the extended stays and health complications they bring. As such, it’s completely appropriate to ask health care workers to wash their hands when they enter your room.
5. Ask questions, and when you don’t understand the answer, ask again.
It’s not unusual to be baffled when a doctor or nurse explains your condition, how your procedure went or the medication you’re getting. Anytime you are confused about your care, ask. If the answer is full of medical jargon or doesn’t explain things well, ask your doctor to simplify the response as much as possible.
6. Bring all of your medications along (including supplements).
Adverse drug events affect an estimated 5 percent of hospital patients, and about half of these events are preventable. Make sure your doctor(s) know about all of your medications, including any supplements you might be taking. Rather than just making a list, bring them along or take photos of each bottle to ensure accuracy and prevent potentially dangerous interactions.
7. Ask for your discharge plan in writing, and make sure you understand it before leaving.
Before you leave the hospital, someone will go over your discharge with you— setting any follow-up appointments, explaining your medications and touching on any self-care and treatment you should be following at home. Ask for all of these instructions in writing, and make sure you get a point of contact— someone to call if you have any questions once you leave.
These steps can help protect your physical health, but hospital safety doesn’t begin and end there. Financial precautions should also be a part of any hospital stay. Be proactive with your insurance company and the hospital billing office to ensure you’re aren’t hit with an unexpected medical bill, and be sure to bring up your concerns if you feel like you’re being unfairly charged. Your hospitalization and recovery times shouldn’t be spent worrying over costs, whether physical or financial.