How to Keep Loved Ones Safe & Sound in the Hospital

Karen Curtis 2
Karen Curtiss

Personal experiences motivated Karen Curtiss’ book on avoiding hospital hazards

Anyone facing a hospital stay has probably heard the advice: Take someone with you. After all, patients need a loved one to lend support, ask questions and serve as a care partner and advocate, right?

But without medical training or experience, how do those care partners know what to ask, how to ask or what precautions to take? Too often, they aren’t prepared.

Karen Curtiss certainly wasn’t prepared for the series of medical errors that struck her family. After a successful lung transplant at a top academic medical center, her father died from complications resulting from a fall that went untreated for 57 hours, which led to pneumonia, blood clots, a pulmonary embolism, MRSA and C diff. Her husband spent 18 months recovering from sepsis and a VRE infection, stemming from improper surgery preparation and care afterward. And her young son would have undergone an unnecessary operation had she not questioned a doctor and sought a second opinion.

Determined to help other families avoid similar fates, Curtiss, a consultant with more than 25 years of market research experience, started digging for answers. She slogged through nursing textbooks, talked to medical and patient safety experts, searched through healthcare studies and more. And she learned that there are actionable steps families can take to prevent every hospital hazard her family suffered, plus others. In fact, she learned that the medical community has a name for them: NEVER Events.

Curtiss compiled her research into Safe & Sound in the Hospital, a new book designed to educate patients and their families about how to prepare for a hospitalization, stay on top of the many issues that can arise during a hospitalization, and help prevent another hospital stay. The book provides a series of practical tips, creative tools and quick checklists that care partners can use to help prevent common hospital hazards and promote a safe recovery.

“I wrote the handbook I wish my family had available,” says Curtiss. “If I’d had Safe & Sound in the Hospital when my father was in the hospital, he’d be alive today. This guide is my way of transforming my family’s tragedies into better outcomes for others.”

In Safe & Sound in the Hospital, Curtiss offers tips and guidance such as:

Keep your loved one safe from infection. Make sure everyone—especially doctors and nurses—washes his or her hands before touching your loved one. Make colorful tent card signs for your loved one’s room with messages like “Thank you for washing your hands!” or “For my safety, please wash your hands.”

Clean TV remotes, door knobs, telephones, bed rails, call buttons, faucets, toilet flush levers and personal items with alcohol wipes and bleach wipes to help zap Superbugs and C. diff spores. Repeat cleaning after every touch or brush with clothing (doctors’ jackets and scrubs and nurses’ uniforms are like Trojan Horses, carrying bugs all over the hospital).

Speak up and ask questions. Get to know everyone who takes care of your loved one. Ask questions in a friendly, respectful way. Don’t be afraid to admit if you don’t understand their answers and need a ‘plain English’ translation.

Find out how to call for a Rapid Response Team if you feel like your loved one is going downhill and no one seems to be taking action. Trust your gut; you know your loved one best.

When possible, schedule surgeries mid-week and avoid holiday times. If complications arise, you’ll want to be able to reach your doctor and the “A” team.

Ask the nurse to pause and double-check each medication just before it’s given. Verify the prescription, the dose and intended patient. NEVER interrupt a nurse in the middle of administering a drug unless you sense a mistake.

Virtually every patient is at risk to take a fall. Look for items in the room that might cause a trip, and bring non-skid socks or slippers for your loved one to wear. Ask the nurses about a cane for your loved one to use. Make sure someone is available to help your loved one to the bathroom and back.

One in three patients is accidentally harmed in U.S. hospitals every year, according to a 2011 study from Health Affairs, a health policy journal. But Curtiss is convinced that patients’ care partners can help fill the cracks in hospital care that lead to Never Events.

“These are generally system failures, not human failures,” Curtiss emphasizes. “In my experience, everyone in hospitals is well intentioned. We just need more eyes and ears on patients, and who could be more patient-centered care partners than families? It’s so important for families to be engaged and vigilant and to have their eyes wide open when someone they love is in the hospital.Safe & Sound in the Hospital provides the information and tools they need to safeguard their loved one’s care. It’s a better gift than flowers.”

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