Holiday in the hospital? Stay safe!

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If you have to enter a hospital over the holidays, we have some advice on how to stay safe in there. First, we recommend reading Consumer Reports’ hospital survival guide on how to prevent infections, drug mix-ups, unnecessary tests, and other common hospital errors. Just like many of us prefer to take time off work for the holidays, doctors and nurses may take time off, and hospitals can be short-staffed. Hospitals with low nurse staffing levels tend to have higher rates of poor patient outcomes such as pneumonia, shock, cardiac arrest, and urinary tract infections, according to research funded by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) and others. In this kind of situation, it’s important that you stay as alert as possible and take notes of the procedures you’re getting, or have a loved one be your hospital watch dog.

With nurses and doctors taking time off, you also don’t want to end up in a “bait-and-switch” situation, when a surgeon you’re expecting to operate on you, ends up not being the one who conducts the surgery. Generally, hospital staff with the most seniority get to pick their vacation times first, so you may end up being treated by a less experienced physician, or an inadequately supervised resident if you’re at a teaching hospital. A 2005 Harvard study examining 20 years of malpractice claims from five insurance companies, found that residents played a role in about a third of malpractice cases involving medical error. For each doctor who sees you, find out if they are an attending physician (experienced doctor), or resident (doctor in training). The more you can plan your hospital stay and know who is doing your medical procedure, their experience level, and whether they’ve harmed patients or not, the better. Check out to find out what kind of physician background reporting is available in your state and look up their history!

Here are some other hospital safety tips from around the internet:

Keep a list of all your medications – name, dose, when and how you take it, what it is for. Keep a copy in your purse or wallet. This list is very helpful if you go to a new doctor or to the emergency room. [Dr. Maryellen Smith’s “Avoiding Medication Errors and Loss – Ten Tips”]

Don’t get shortchanged by shift changes

The chance of medical mishaps shoots up during shift changes, says Arthur Aaron Levin, MPH, director of the Center for Medical Consumers. Before your current nurse leaves, request time to review your chart and what treatment you’re supposed to get next. And meet with your new nurse, too, to ask any questions you have, advises Caitlin Brennan, RN, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at Case Western Reserve University Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing. [MSNBC’s “14 worst hospital mistakes to avoid”]

Demand a hand-wash

Potential for infection lurks everywhere in a hospital, so ask everyone to wash their hands before touching you. Sanitary gel dispensers should be available just outside or inside your room, but if you’re not sure they’ve been used, keep your own gel by your bedside, rub some on before shaking hands, and offer it to visitors, says Lawrence C. Chao, MD, an ophthalmologist in Irvine, CA. [MSNBC’s “14 worst hospital mistakes to avoid”]

…and a regular room-cleaning

Typically, a room is completely washed down between patients, but if you’re there for a few days, ask that frequently touched areas be disinfected. It’s not always done but should be, says Lisa McGiffert, director of Consumer Union’s Safe Patient Project. “Everything in the room could potentially spread infection,” she says. [MSNBC’s “14 worst hospital mistakes to avoid”]

Don’t let the hospital discharge you too early, just because the holidays are approaching or if you think you aren’t ready to go home. If you feel like you aren’t ready, and they are insisting on discharging you anyway, get the hospital’s patient advocate or a social worker involved to advocate on your behalf. On the other hand, don’t stay too long if you can help it, especially during these times when staff is leaner. You may actually be safer at home where infections may not be as likely, as long as you have assistance when you get home. [Trisha Torrey’s “When To Avoid Being a Hospital Patient”]

Hopefully you can prevent going to the hospital over the holidays by doing things at home safely. Here are CDC’s tips for staying safe during the holidays. Happy holidays!