Probe: Nursing Mistakes Cause Deaths

Monday, September 11th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CHICAGO (AP) — Poorly trained or overwhelmed nurses are responsible for thousands of deaths and injuries each year in the nation's hospitals, according to a Chicago Tribune investigation.

Since 1995, at least 1,720 hospital patients have died and 9,548 others have been injured because of mistakes made by registered nurses across the country, the Tribune found in an analysis of 3 million state and federal records. The analysis is published in the Tribune's Sunday editions.

The records include cases of patients getting overdoses of medication, vital care being delayed for hours and nurses performing medical procedures without proper training.

The Tribune report, which focused on nursing mistakes, follows claims made in a wider-reaching 1999 report by the Institute of Medicine that estimated medical mistakes kill anywhere from 44,000 to 98,000 hospitalized Americans each year.

The Tribune's analysis found that many hospitals have increasingly turned to part-time nurses from temporary agencies. It also found that at least 119 patients had died under the care of unlicensed, unregulated nurses aides, who earn an average $9 an hour.

Mandatory overtime and 16-hour shifts have led to a shortage of nurses willing to work at the University of Illinois at Chicago Medical Center, said registered nurse Kathy Cloninger, who has worked there for seven years.

``I wake up every day and hope I don't kill someone today,'' Cloninger told the Tribune. ``Every day I pray: God protect me. Let me make it out of there with my patients alive.''

Nursing staffs have been the first target for cutbacks at hospitals where profits have been squeezed by managed care programs and falling federal Medicaid reimbursements, said Rick Wade of the American Hospital Association.

Under a cost-saving program in at least two Chicago hospitals, housekeeping staff assigned to clean rooms were pressed into duty as aides to dispense medicine, the Tribune found.

In testimony prepared for a national meeting scheduled Monday in Washington to discuss medical errors, the American Nurses Association said there is a critical need for research to explore the relationship of staffing levels and the number of medical errors.

One of the first hospital injury lawsuits to target corporate-level staffing decisions rather than individual negligence involved 61-year-old Shirley Keck, whose pleas for help went unnoticed as she lay gasping for breath at Wesley Medical Center in Wichita, Kan.

Keck was one of 41 critically ill patients on her floor in February 1988 when she started having trouble breathing. Her daughter, Becky Hartman, ran to a nurses station several times for help but couldn't find help.

``There was nobody around,'' Hartman said. ``I was raising my voice and getting angry. I was so frustrated.''

Her lawsuit alleged that lack of monitoring by nurses — caused by short staffing — led directly to the permanent brain damage Keck suffered. The hospital agreed to a $2.7 million out-of-court settlement, but maintains that it was safely staffed.

The Institute of Medicine report, issued in November, attributed many hospital deaths to basic flaws in the way hospitals, clinics and pharmacies operate. It was criticized by Indiana University scientists who said that the numbers were exaggerated and that the report failed to eliminate other risks or possible causes for the deaths.

After the 1999 report came out, President Clinton said hospitals should agree to routine reporting of serious and deadly mistakes.


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