My left foot is under assault by some nasty little microscopic creatures. I like both my feet, but my left one is my favorite. Since I am left handed, it naturally follows that I should be left footed; consequently, I find that such activities as kicking something or someone, stepping on an insect, climbing a stair, or putting on my pants are always led by my left foot. If I am dancing or tapping my foot to music, my left foot leads the way, and the right one follows. When I feel the need to show my anger at having been bested in an argument with Barb, it is my left foot which will be loudest as I stomp out of the room. Of course these are minor functions when compared with its utility along with its companion on the right in providing a convenient means of getting from point A to point B. For these and many other reasons, I would very much like to keep my foot as I do need it.
The problem first appeared two weeks ago when I noticed redness and swelling on the dorsum (that’s doctor talk for top) of my left foot. I thought it looked like a cellulitis, a condition which can progress rapidly with very serious consequences. With that in mind, I talked my way into a next day appointment with my doctor’s colleague (my doctor was on vacation). He agreed with my diagnosis, and started me on an antibiotic with instructions to return “ASAP” if there were any signs the infection was spreading. There was no change after two weeks so he changed antibiotics and informed me that he would admit me to the hospital for IV antibiotics if there was no improvement after a week on the new bug killer. I was a bit shaken by this new game plan.
You may be thinking: what is the big deal about going to the hospital for a relatively benign treatment? Surely I would submit to the harshest of treatments if I thought there was the slightest risk of losing that left foot of which I had become so fond. Although I had spent thousands of hours working in that hospital, I felt some trepidation about becoming a patient there, simply because a hospital is a dangerous place.
One study reports 440,000 preventable hospital deaths annually, making such errors the third leading cause of death in the U.S. I believe these numbers are inflated somewhat, as preventable does not necessarily mean they could have been foreseen in time to intervene. Even so, if these numbers are even half accurate, one must consider hospitals as dangerous. They are further contaminated by including hospital infection rates. We are currently experiencing an epidemic of infections in hospitals. The CDC reports 724,800 such cases in 2015. 4% of all patients admitted will contract an infection while in the hospital. This in itself is scary enough, especially when one considers that hospital infections are apt to be treatment resistant.
The problem of hospital infections continues to bedevil the medical community, and most experts believe that it has evolved due to the inappropriate use of antibiotics which results in the development of bacteria which have become smart enough to develop immunity to the effects of antibiotics. The most common of these organisms are: MRSA (methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus) and clostridium difficile which is usually referred to as C. diff. The elimination of these bacteria from hospitals has been a daunting task on which most hospitals expend a lot of resources. Such infections do present a significant danger to those whose immune systems are impaired or patients who are weak and infirm. They appear to be spread throughout the hospital by caregivers who are at risk of carrying an infectious agent from one patient to the next.
The VA reported they were able to reduce hospital induced infections by 40 percent by the simple expedient of requiring all staff members to use an antibacterial lotion on their hands when leaving or entering a patient’s room. Compliance was carefully monitored in the study. It is now common practice to have antibacterial dispensers near the entrance of every room; however, there are always those who will not follow protocol. It is also true that lotions are ineffective against most viruses.
Sometimes the mode of transmission is less obvious, for example in one case a number of patients all belonging to a particular surgeon contracted a MRSA infection. Eventually the source was traced to the surgeon’s necktie after it was noted by a nurse that when bending over to examine his post op patients his tie came in contact. A culture confirmed that the tip of his tie was contaminated. Some post-surgical wound infections have been traced to closed circuit ventilation systems commonly used in surgical suites with a mechanism of spread similar to that seen in Legionnaire’s disease. The increase in the use of medical devices, and other invasive procedures, both in diagnosis and treatment, also undoubtedly increases the risk of infection. Although it seems probable that lack of caution is responsible for many of these infections, I submit that if an event is not predictable it is not likely to be preventable, and I don’t believe the statistics I have quoted take this into account. However; whatever the cause, the numbers are frightening.
A few years ago (I dare not say how many), my wife Barb’s first job after nurse’s training was what was then called private duty. As such, she was employed by her patient to provide nursing care exclusively for him, and therefore, except for very brief periods, was in constant attendance during her shift. I suppose such care is still enjoyed by the super-rich but is beyond reach for most of us. Besides, if one arranged for such a nurse, it is unlikely said nurse would be welcomed by the hospital.
Now, many wisely suggest that if hospitalized, one should arrange for an advocate. The wisdom of such an arrangement was brought home to me when I was hospitalized a few years ago. When I did not get an adequate response after pushing the nurse call button to get help for what I believed to be a serious problem, Barb channeled the tigress within her and attention was immediately forthcoming. It appears to me that the most highly trained of the caregivers, the RNs, spend much of their time with administrative functions, while the hands on care is delivered by others, yet the RN is in charge and is expected to know all about the patients under her care. As Barb says “I learned more about my patients while giving a back rub than from taking a formal history.” But alas, back rubs are mostly a thing of the past.
None of this is meant to disparage hospital nursing staffs, for I believe nearly all are fully dedicated to the most noble of all professions; however, many to whom I have talked complain they are not able to spend enough time with their patients, and consequently worry that they might miss something important.
There are several factors that may contribute to the problems of medical errors.
Due to cost cutting efforts by third party payers (a code word for insurance companies), the criteria for admission to hospitals are more stringent than they have been in the past, and there is intense pressure to discharge patients. The result is that the typical hospitalized patient is sicker and therefore more vulnerable to even minor mistakes.
Modern miracles in medicine require many people to get in on the act. Diagnostic and treatment procedures are much more complex and require the involvement of those with specialized skill sets and knowledge. In addition to consulting doctors there are therapists of many disciplines, and others trained in specific diagnostic procedures who are likely added to the mix. It is generally accepted that the more people involved in an activity the greater is the chance of a screw up.
The latest statistics on hospital errors suggest that those involving medication top the list. The most common as you might expect is due to misidentification of the patient, although errors in the pharmacy are certainly possible. Any who have been hospitalized in the past year or so probably noted that whatever was done to them was preceded by a question as to their name and birthdate, which was then verified by reading the hospital wrist band. The fact that mistakes still occur in spite of all these precautions confirm the impression that as humans we are all fallible.
Mistakes in the operating room can be especially disastrous. One of my closest friends, who also happens to be a retired orthopedic surgeon was forced to have back surgery twice because his surgeon picked the wrong vertebral level on the first try. This confirmed my impression that whatever status I thought was conferred on me as a doctor would do little to make me immune from an unwanted assault on my body.
Other mistakes can be even more serious. I recall hearing of an instance in which a person had the wrong kidney removed, necessitating her being put on chronic renal dialysis. There have been similar rare reports of people who have returned from surgery to find their good leg has been amputated, and the bad one remains. I once had a patient who was scheduled for X-rays, but realized she was taken to the wrong place when she found herself surrounded by people with caps, masks and long gowns. The transportation person insisted he was told to take the patient in bed two to surgery, and the charge nurse was equally adamant that she had instructed him that surgery was waiting for the patient in bed one. Fortunately, the surgery staff discovered the error at about the same time as did the patient, but the incident raises the issue of how important those repeated questions about name and confirming birth date can be. I also remember having three patients by the name of Smith in one room back in the days when most hospitals had a few four-bed wards. You can imagine the problems that situation could cause.
Now that modern medicine has contributed to an average longevity greater than nature intended, we have a much older population and since the prevalence of many illnesses is directly proportional to the amount of aging, hospital populations have become older, weaker, and susceptible to many problems which may interfere with their equilibrium. They are also more likely to be on medications that may affect their balance. Put these factors together and it is easy to see why falls are more common amongst the elderly. Since old folks are more susceptible to injury, falls are a serious problem and nowhere more so than in the hospital.
Recently, I visited an old friend who has had unsuccessful back surgery. He was in a rehab facility to get physical therapy, and has been unable to walk. It was a nice day so I got help and placed him in a wheelchair and took him out for some air and sunshine. As I got ready to leave, I noted that he was slumped over a bit in the chair and I was concerned about leaving him there without something to prevent him from falling out of it. I was especially concerned as he has had a couple of falls since his surgery, one time by falling out of bed. When I asked for something to keep him from falling out of the chair, I was told that I couldn’t do that as it would be considered a physical restraint which could not be used in their facility. I thought that was the dumbest thing I had heard since the last presidential debate, and decided to do a little research on the subject. What I have learned is that there has been a great deal of debate about the use of physical restraints, and that some courts have issued rulings about their legality. Some researchers insist that restraints cause more injuries than they prevent. They insist that even bedrails designed to keep people from falling out of bed are dangerous as patients will often try to climb over them and sustain serious injuries. They point to cases of strangulation by so called “soft” restraints often used to prevent confused patients from pulling out catheters, endotracheal tubes, chest tubes, etc. sometimes causing serious damage. I am always bothered by such research, for although it documents carefully the injuries caused by such restraints, there is no way to know what injuries if any they may have prevented. Of course the best solution would be for the patients to have someone in attendance constantly, which is unlikely to happen.
In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that I have been guilty of using “full leather” restraints on a few occasions when dealing with severely agitated violent patients who are determined to do harm to themselves or others. It was never for very long and I was usually surprised at how well they tolerated it. It may have been because there was someone assigned to be with them, that they realized they had needed to be subdued, or simply that it gave the medication time to work.
Ordering such treatment always made me shudder for I am quite claustrophobic for which I blame my older brother, rest his soul. When we were kids he delighted in putting a blanket over my head and pinning my arms until I panicked. I have dealt with homicidal patients in the past without totally losing my cool, but find that anything which prevents free movement of my arms takes me all the way to the edge of a panic attack. The thought of being handcuffed with my hands behind my back fills me with dread. The only fear I have of surgery is that I will wake up restrained as is often the case when complications result in a patient being attached to a respirator. A couple of years ago l was forced to have my left arm pinned against my chest and to lie flat for 24 hours following a procedure. I, the one who feels nerve pills are for everyone else, begged for Xanax. And you thought psychiatrists didn’t have hang-ups.
No treatise on hospital errors would be complete without mentioning the current fad of electronic medical records, and as you can imagine I have a lot to say about that subject. In addition to reducing costs, and increasing the quality of care, these systems are touted to dramatically reduce hospital errors, but for now I will spare you my ruminations about that subject as Maggie has chastened me about making these things too long. As for my favorite foot the current medication seems to be working and hospitalization seems unlikely.