Most people know they should have an advocate with them when they go into the hospital. But they don't know how to be a good advocate for others. Karen Curtiss isn't a health care professional, but a former marketing consultant and mother of four who started CampaignZERO in 2009 to provide consumers with the strategies and checklists to help reduce medical errors. She compiled her research into a handbook called "Safe and Sound in the Hospital," which is available on Amazon and at CampaignZERO.org. We talked with Curtiss at her Lake Bluff home.
Q. What started you down this path?
A. My dad suffered from idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. In February 2005, he had a lung transplant at a top East Coast medical center. The transplant was a success, and he was told that he'd be back on the golf course by July. Instead, he had a fall — a goose egg on his head that went untreated for 57 hours because it happened over the weekend. They told him to lie still, which is the worst thing for anyone suffering from a lung condition … and it unleashed a cascade of events. By Monday he was in the ICU. He developed pneumonia, MRSA, blood clots, which traveled to his new lung. He never went home and he died seven months later, at age 71. Also, my husband and son suffered some adverse effects when they were hospitalized.
Q. What did you do while your dad's condition was going downhill?
A. I was in Chicago and in touch with my mom, who kept telling me that the neurologist was coming. I finally called the nurses station and lost it. Eventually, he did see the neurologist, but my parents don't like to complain, they wait their turn … and my dad paid a price.
Q. Looking back, what would you do differently?
A. I would have stepped in sooner. I would have contacted the nursing supervisor or the hospital social worker. I would have found out how to call the Rapid Response Team. In short, I would have spoken up politely but persistently. So, I wrote the handbook that I wish my family had available.
Q. What kind of research did you do?
A. I started digging into what are the best practices. I studied nursing textbooks, I talked to safety experts, I delved into health care studies. … For example, a 2011 study in Health Affairs, a health policy journal, says 1 in 3 patients is accidentally harmed in the hospital. The World Health Organization has a study that's available online about how hand hygiene is the single most important factor in preventing infections. … So, you can keep your loved one safe by something as simple as making sure everyone washes his or her hands.
Q. Any other good tips to ensure patient safety?
A. Try to schedule surgery midweek and avoid weekends and holidays. I'd also ask my surgeon if he or she is planning to take a vacation … because you want them around if something goes wrong. There can be errors surrounding medication. Always ask the nurse to double-check each one before administering. One doctor started talking to me about putting my dad on heparin (a common blood-thinner), and he was already on heparin. I said, "Did you read his chart?"
Q. Why do you think these lapses happen?
A. Care is so fragmented today, which is why asking questions is just so important. You can't assume that there's communication between professionals. I can't tell you how often I heard the phrase, "This fell through the cracks." I don't want to place blame. … It's not the people, it's the system.
Q. Don't you worry that you're going to frighten people who need to go to the hospital?
A. I don't want to scare them. … I just want them to be prepared, aware and go into this experience with their eyes wide open.