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How to Survive a Stay in the Hospital

Thousands of Americans die each year because of hospital errors. Don't let yourself be a statistic.

By Sid Kirchheimer
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario

There seems to be good reason for that common but little publicized condition known as "nosocomephobia" -- the fear of hospitals. And it goes beyond those oh-too-revealing patient-issued gowns.

Consider a new study indicating that an average of 195,000 people die each year in American hospitals due to potentially preventable medical errors. This alarming statistic comes after researchers reviewed records of 37 million hospitalizations. In fact, the report, by Health Grades, Inc., which assesses hospital safety, finds that one in four Medicare patients who experienced a hospital error died as a result of it.

"It's perfectly understandable why many people feel the way they do about a hospital stay," says Marc Siegel, MD, internist at New York University Medical Center and clinical associate professor at its school of medicine. "You have control of your life ... up until you're admitted to a hospital."

Then, your fate is placed in the hands of others -- often, overworked doctors, nurses, and other staff who may have the best of intentions ... along with dozens of other patients to care for on each and every shift.

What Can (and Does) Go Wrong

That may explain why medication errors occur in nearly one in five doses administered at the typical hospital or skilled-nursing facility, according to a September 2002 study in Archives of Internal Medicine. That research indicated that in nearly half those errors, the dosage was given at the wrong time; in 30% of cases the drugs weren't given; and in 17% of cases, the issued dosage was wrong. About one in 25 patients got the wrong drugs altogether, say researchers.

Of course, there are other potential problems: Designated menus that contain food that is prohibited for your condition, such as a vegetable-rich diet for patients being treated for blood clots or solid foods served to those needing liquid diets, unresponsive staff to change IV bags before they're empty, and even the biggie -- the risk of having the wrong surgery.

"Many patients go into a hospital on blind faith, because they think that whatever is being done to them is OK because it's a hospital," says Vincent Marchello, MD, medical director of Metropolitan Jewish Geriatric Center in New York City, and assistant clinical professor of medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. "They shouldn't."

So how can you protect yourself during a hospital stay?

"I'd say the single biggest mistake that patients make is to not ask questions about their care," says Marchello. "They don't want to be a bother, but doctors today have a better bedside manner than in the past largely because of efforts made by medical schools. If you think there may be a problem, ask about it ... before it is a problem."

What to Pack

But even before you arrive, you should pack certain items to minimize the risk of trouble. Among the most useful items:

  • Your medical history. Before an emergency or planned procedure, have your complete medical history on hand. "I recommend writing it down yourself, and always have it on hand in case you go to the hospital," says Mary Lorrie Davis, LVN, author of the book, How to Survive a Stay in the Hospital Without Getting Killed. "You could get your medical history at your doctor's office, but how many people only go to one doctor for all their health needs. What you tell your ob-gyn may not be the same thing you tell your general practitioner or allergist."