Checking for Patient Safety Using Hospital Checklists

As counterintuitive as it may seem, going to a hospital may kill a person. According to the New York Times, the fourth-leading cause of death in the United States is hospital-acquired infections — that is, infections like pneumonia that patients contract while receiving treatment for other ailments. Such infections cost the health-care system over $40 billion annually.

Across the country, hospitals have taken steps to decrease the occurrence of hospital-acquired infections, making remarkable progress in some areas. Yet, studies show there is still a long way to go.

Safety Checklists Prove Effective

A 2003 experiment in Michigan demonstrated the efficacy of a simple checklist in fighting some kinds of patient infections. To reduce the number of central-line catheter infections - one of the deadliest hospital-acquired infections - the Michigan Health and Hospital Association required 103 intensive-care units to use a five-point checklist when inserting catheters. The results were dramatic: the median rate of infection dropped to zero and remained there through 15 months of follow-up monitoring.

The same hospitals instituted a similar checklist method for preventing ventilator-associated pneumonia, another dangerous hospital-acquired infection. The hospitals were successful in eliminating this infection by using the checklist procedure, again reducing the median infection rate to zero.

Atul Gawande, author of The Checklist Manifesto, says hospital checklists work well for a couple key reasons. First, lists of each step in a given procedure are reminders to busy hospital personnel who may overlook a step when doing many things at once. Second, lists instill a sense of responsibility among the people performing a procedure, in that everyone is responsible for the success of the whole. Each person has the right to speak up if he or she sees another skipping a step on the checklist.

Risks of Hospital-Acquired Infections

Despite the success of checklists in reducing hospital-acquired infections, there is still much room for improvement. One of the leading causes of hospital-acquired infections is hospital workers' failure to wash their hands. A study published in the American Journal of Medicine Quality used hand-washing monitoring equipment at participating hospitals and found that very few facilities had hand-washing rates above 50 percent. The study also revealed that medical personnel in the intensive care units only washed their hands one quarter of the times they should have.

Hospital-acquired infections can lead to serious injury or death. If you acquired an infection in a health-care facility or lost a loved one from a hospital-acquired infection, contact an experienced medical malpractice attorney to discuss your situation and any legal options you may have.