When we get sick or injured we like to think that there’s always a place and a person who will be able to take care of us, typically doctors and nurses in hospitals.
Every now and then, there will be a news story undermining the trust that we have in our medical professionals, like a sponge being left inside a patient’s body by a doctor during surgery, or a nurse giving a patient the wrong medication.
What I didn’t know was how common these problems were until I spoke with industry experts and looked into the issues personally. Aliria Munoz, ICU registered nurse and clinical assistant, spoke to me about what she experienced while working at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix.
“Short staffing in hospitals has been getting worse, particularly over the past 10 years,” she said. “As a result, hospitals have stopped being conducive to good nursing care, at least in my experience.”
It’s not just nurses, either. Doctors have been guilty of health violations such as not washing their hands before administering medical care. As Munoz describes it, “A doctor will come into the room and start talking to a patient to see how they’re doing.
“He wont wash his hands because he says he’s just going to speak with them, but then more often than not the patient will complain about something that’s hurting, and the doctor will reach down and briefly lay hands on the patient to figure out what it is.
“That’s all it takes to spread dangerous germs to someone who currently has a very weak immune system.”
Other events, such as a patients falling out of their beds or even attempting suicide sometimes go unreported. In fact, medical error is the third leading cause of death in the U.S., claiming 251,000 lives every year.
“Reporting events like this to the hospital is very important because it is the system that causes the problems to occur, and it would help with finding systemic solutions,” said Munoz.
Other errors, that may seem harmless on the surface such as a patient receiving Tylenol when they needed a different drug, can cause anaphylactic shock (also known as a severe allergic reaction). Again this improper medicine allocation often goes unreported because the nurses or doctors either forget they made the mistake or don’t think it’s a big deal.
“One reason why we have medicines going to the wrong patients is because each patient’s chart is crammed with repetitive and excessive information,” said Munoz. “A nurse has to go down each box on each list and check, double check, and triple check to make sure everything is correct, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but it gets redundant quickly.”
There are certain fail-safes that hospitals have installed to protect against this. In the last 10 years, for example, medical scanners have been installed in hospitals across the country that allow nurses to simply scan the code and see exactly what each patient needs.
But as Munoz warns, it’s important to remember that there’s faults in every system, and that the barcode system is not perfect. According to the article cited above, as many as 30 percent of U.S. hospitals did not even have barcode scanning systems as recently as 2012.
None of this is meant to scare you away from hospitals, as they are undoubtedly vital to the health of our communities. But the problems discussed in this piece should be in the back of everyone’s mind the next time they make a visit, because as much as we’d like to believe otherwise, healthcare professionals are far from perfect.
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