Karen Garloch

Hospital patients need advocates

A friend Jim DeBrosse recently posted a Facebook message about the experience he and his wife, Kathy, had at a Cincinnati hospital, where she was getting checked after suddenly losing vision in her left eye.

Tests ruled out a retinal detachment or a stroke. But the experience reminded him to be alert to mistakes when you’re in the hospital.

Here’s part of his post: “Hospitals, especially big hospitals, are dangerous places for patients who don’t speak up or know how to navigate the system, primarily because there is so much miscommunication among staff and specialists. … Kathy’s nurse started her IV in the wrong arm, not knowing the particular scan the neurologist had ordered required an IV in her other arm. … God help the patients who have no one to look after them.”

Facebook friends responded with similar concerns. One wrote: “Just think what happens to those who have no medical knowledge, limited education etc.…We have a rule in my family never leave a loved one alone at the hospital unless they are fully able to self advocate.”

This isn’t just a minor problem. In 1999, the Institute of Medicine published its bombshell report, “To Err Is Human,” estimating that preventable medical errors caused up to 98,000 deaths each year in U.S. hospitals, with an associated cost of $17 billion to$29 billion.

I, too, have felt overwhelmed when trying to watch out for loved ones in the hospital. I remember a particularly alarming experience during my 87-year-old mother’s final hospital stay in 2007. One morning, my sister and I were with her when she began having trouble breathing. We mentioned this to the nurse, who said Mom was probably anxious about her upcoming surgery.

That didn’t sound like our stoic, Midwestern mom. As we waited, my sister noticed that one of the readings on the IV pole beside her bed was far different than it had been the day before. We worried Mom was getting too much fluid, an ongoing problem that was documented in her medical record.

We called the nurse, who again said it was probably anxiety, but we insisted that she call a doctor. While we waited, Mom’s breathing got worse and, with fear in her eyes, she asked us to pray. Finally, when a doctor arrived and we explained the situation, he calmly turned off a switch on the IV pole, and she improved in seconds. After all the resistance and all the waiting, we were shocked that he actually listened to us.

Even doctors who work in hospitals have shared with me their frustrations about trying to advocate for hospitalized loved ones. That leaves me wondering: If they can’t do it successfully, who can?

For advice, I’ve turned to a book called “Top Screwups Doctors Make and How to Avoid Them,” by Joe and Teresa Graedon.

The Durham couple, who produce “The People’s Pharmacy” columns and radio show, published that book in 2011 in response to Joe’s mother’s death after a series of medical errors.

“The death toll from health care screwups adds up to at least 500,000 Americans annually,” he said. “That is the equivalent of more than three jumbo jets crashing every day of the year. But because these individuals are dying at home, in hospitals, or in nursing homes, no one is counting ... The medical profession seems largely immune to the consequences of its errors.”

His advice, in part, is: Expect mistakes, be assertive and double-check everything.

Karen Garloch: 704-358-5078, @kgarloch