1. Choose Carefully
Infections that are acquired after checking into the hospital kill 31,000 patients a year, which nearly rivals the number of breast cancer deaths annually, says Peter Pronovost, MD, PhD, the author of Safe Patients, Smart Hospitals. What’s more, most of these could easily have been prevented. If you have a choice of hospitals, ask if your doctor knows your options’ infection rates, which are measured using “catheter days,” meaning every 24 hours that a tube is inserted in a patient’s blood vessels. “The best hospitals’ rates have been zero in one thousand catheter days for a year or more,” says Dr. Pronovost. “If it’s risen above three, I’d be worried.”
2. Practice Makes Perfect
The more often a doctor has performed a procedure, the more familiar she is with its variations and complications and the higher her success rate is likely to be. Confirm that your physician is board certified in her specialty (check the American Board of Medical Specialties at abms.org), but also ask her how many times she’s treated your condition.
3. Timing is Everything
Weekends, nights, and holidays are not the optimal times for operations. Even the lead-up to the weekend can be problematic: “For elective surgery, avoid a Friday afternoon operation slot if possible,” advises a surgeon in a busy Midwestern hospital who asked not to be named. “The operating room staff may be fatigued and less able to concentrate then.”
It gets worse on the weekend. Stroke patients treated in hospitals on Saturday and Sunday were 16 percent more likely to die than those treated on weekdays, found a recent study from the University of Toronto. Staffing tends to be lighter then; getting lab results takes longer; and on-call docs have to drive in from home.
4. Go Digital
Often, in a busy hospital, complicated medication orders are dictated quickly to harried staffs, so they can frequently be a source of error. If possible, use a hospital with electronic records, which can reduce prescription slipups sevenfold, according to a recent Weill Cornell Medical College study. When information is entered, the computer alerts staff to potential problems by beeping, freezing, and/or flashing a warning message to prevent improper dosages, incorrectly filled prescriptions, and dangerous drug interactions. Only 17% of hospitals have such a system for medications, but it’s worth checking for: After the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford in Palo Alto, CA, adopted one, its death rates dropped by 20%.