5 Hospital Safety Hazards You Need to Know About

We go to hospitals are when we’re sick and in need of medical care. We expect that we’ll get better and then return to our lives. However, hospitals can also be very risky environments, exposing patients to dangerous pathogens and infections and potential medical errors. Knowledge is power and especially powerful when it comes to healthcare. Knowing what to look for and how to minimize the risk of a dangerous safety hazard, can help make your family member’s stay as safe and comfortable as possible.

Here are some common issues and advice on how you can better protect your loved one.

Patient Misidentification

Patient misidentification can cause patients serious harm, and in rare situations, death. No one wants their loved ones to get the wrong medication, treatment or procedure.

What should you do?

Make sure the information on the patient’s wrist band is accurate AND is checked before every medication or procedure. Again, it is very helpful to have a friend or family member stay with the patient as much as possible. If a healthcare professional wants to administer unfamiliar medications or perform an unexpected procedure, speak up.

Exposure to Pathogens

Infections acquired in healthcare settings are common and can be dangerous. In high-income countries like the U.S., approximately 30% of patients in Intensive Care Units (ICUs) are affected by at least one healthcare acquired infection.

Hospitals contain sick people and sick people contain germs. Unfortunately, germs (also referred to as pathogens), like C. diff and MRSA, can get transferred from one patient to another in a variety of ways. Germs can be transmitted through the air – when a patient coughs or sneezes the particles can travel by air and settle on another patient or surfaces which another person then touches. Germs can also be transmitted by medical staff when a doctor or other health professional doesn’t adequately wash his/her hands between patients.  Hard surfaces (e.g. bed rails, door knobs, tray tables) that are not properly cleaned and disinfected on a regular basis pose risks to all who contact them. It turns out that even the floors are covered in dangerous germs.

What should you do?

  • Treat all items in a hospital room as if they have been contaminated. Regularly wipe down hard surfaces with wipes containing bleach, including items that fall on the floor.
    • If you haven’t observed it firsthand, ask all medical staff to wash their hands and/or put on a new pair of sterile gloves before touching the patient. Don’t be bashful.
    • If possible, ask for a private room to reduce the chance of contamination from a sick roommate.

Risk of Infection from Medical Devices

Patients can develop infections from improperly sterilized needles, catheters and other tools, as well as from medical staff handling these devices with dirty hands.

What should you do?

Insist all medical staff wash their hands and/or put on new gloves before handling a clean/new tool. Same for when handling these items that are already in use on the patient (e.g. ventilator tubes, catheters).
• Every day, ask if catheters, ventilators and other tubes can be removed. The longer they are in use, the higher the risk of infection.

Improper Medication Administration

Most hospitalized patients take medication, with the average patient taking 10 different medications, many of which look alike or have similar sounding names. It is easy for busy staff members to give patients the wrong medications or make an error in dosage. The Institute of Medicine estimates the average hospitalized patient experiences at least one medication error each day! This IOM report also states there are 1.5 million preventable adverse drug interactions each year in US hospitals and long-term care facilities. These medication errors can lead to serious health consequences and even death.

What should you do?

Pay close attention to medication! Keep a written list of all prescribed medications and over the counter medications the patient is taking. Before any drug is given, ask the staffer to confirm the name and dosage of each medication. If you, or the patient, see an unfamiliar medication, ask what it is before it’s administered. Although this may seem like a burdensome, unnecessary step, the risks and likelihood of taking a wrong medication is too high to be ignored.

Missed bedside alarms

Bedside alarms alert medical staff when the patient’s condition is deteriorating and needs attention, such as a drastic change in blood pressure or respiration rates, or when there is a failure of life saving mechanical equipment such as ventilators. Of course, these alarms only work if a nurse (or other staff) responds in a timely, appropriate manner. When nurses and other medical staff do not recognize and respond to bedside alarms, the consequences can be serious, including serious patient harm or death.

A Boston Globe investigation found that between January 2005 and June 2010 more than 200 hospital patients in the U.S. died because of issues with on patient monitors. Missed alarms can also cause a worsening of the patient’s condition.

What should you do?

Until improvements are made in the design and use of these alarms, a family member or other attentive adult should stay with a patient in the hospital. If an urgent alarm sounds, a family member should seek help from a nurse immediately by finding a nurse in the hall or at the nurse’s station.

To minimize the risk of missed alarms, patients and families — especially families of critically ill patients — should speak with the medical staff to learn the following:

  • What monitors are being used and why
    • What the different alarms sound like for each piece of equipment
    • Which alarms are urgent and demand immediate attention

While there are many risks, knowing what to look for and what risks to be most mindful of will help you minimize the risk of error and help make your loved one’s stay as safe and comfortable as possible.

World Health Organization, “Health care-associated infections FACT SHEET”

Consumer Reports, “Your Hospital Survival Guide, 8 Things to Do During Your Stay”, 2013.

Aspen P, Wolcott J, Bootman JL, Cornenwett, LR, “Preventing Medication Errors: Quality Chasm Series”, Patient Safety Network, Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, 2007.

Kowalczyk L, “Patient alarms often unheard, unheeded”. Boston Globe, Feb 13, 2011.

Written by Roberta Carson
Roberta Carson, Founder and President, Zaggo, Inc. Roberta founded Zaggo, Inc. in 2010 to help patients and caregivers effectively manage their own illnesses and injuries after caring for her son Zachary during his 27 month battle with terminal brain cancer. Roberta created the ZaggoCare System to provide patients and families with the information and tools they need to be engaged, empowered members of their medical teams. 100% of the profits from Zaggo are donated to the Zachary Carson Brain Tumor Fund to support pediatric brain tumor research.

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