We've all heard the horror stories: A patient recovering from heart surgery catches pneumonia, a nurse gives her patient the wrong medication, a woman goes in for a routine procedure and suffers anesthesia-related complications. Unfortunately, people checking into hospitals may face some serious health hazards. So, what can you do to protect yourself? Here, the top five hospital risks and how to prevent them.



Medication Errors

Every year, there are 450,000 injuries resulting from medication errors in hospitals and perhaps many more that remain unreported, according to a 2006 report from the Institute of Medicine. To reduce your risk of medication mishaps, make sure that your doctor, surgeon, and everyone else involved in your care are aware of all the medications you're taking and in what doses, as well as any allergies you may have. When a nurse comes to give you medicine, ask what it is and why you need it, and make sure he or she checks your ID bracelet against the name on the prescription.



MRSA and Other Infections

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 1.7 million health care associated infections occur every year. Twenty-two percent of them are infections of surgical wounds, 32 percent are urinary tract infections, and the rest are primarily infections of the lungs, blood, and other parts of the body. One of the most frightening hospital infections is MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus)a type of staph infection that's resistant to many antibiotics. A 2007 study by the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology suggested that almost one out of every 20 hospital patients is either infected with MRSA or carries it. How can you reduce your risk? Request antibiotics both before and after surgery, and more importantly, make sure anyone coming into contact with you has thoroughly washed his or her hands.




After urinary tract and wound infections, pneumonia is the most common hospital risk for patients recovering from surgery. According to the CDC, hospital pneumonia's mortality rates may be as high as 33 percent. During recovery, many patients naturally take shallow breaths to avoid pain. In addition, surgery patients may endure a partial collapse of the lung tissue, called alectasis, which further weakens lung function. These factors, when combined, make it much easier for the bugs that cause pneumonia to gain a foothold in the body. To reduce your pneumonia risk, practice deep-breathing exercises, and follow all of your doctor's instructions. If you're a smoker, quit at least a week or two before your scheduled surgery so your lungs will be as healthy as possible.



Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT)

DVT is the development of a blood clot, typically deep within the veins of the legs. If the clot manages to break free, it can travel through the bloodstream and eventually become lodged in an artery of the lungs, cutting off blood flow to the lungs. This complication, called a pulmonary embolism, can be fatal. DVT develops among hospital patients for many reasons. Patients immobile in bed suffer from decreased circulation, making blood more likely to pool and clot in their legs. The trauma of surgery itself also increases the body's blood-clotting tendencies. To cut your risks of DVT, ask your doctor about the careful use of blood thinners, which can prevent clotting. Remaining mobile is also important. As soon as your doctor gives you the OK, get up out of bed and take a stroll around the hospital.



Anesthesia Complications

Many patients worry about risks from anesthesia, but the good news is, one of the biggest advances in surgical safety has been in anesthesiology. While the chances of complications from anesthesia are quite low, there are several precautions you should take. First, ask to meet with your anesthesiology team to discuss your options. Some patients only need a local or regional anesthetic, while others require full general anesthetic. Review the benefits and risks of each approach to decide which is best for you. It's also important to research your family history to be sure you're not at risk for any allergies related to anesthesia. Amid all of these risks and possible complications, pay attention and ask questions, and remain actively involved in your health care. Remember, it's your body, your health, and ultimately, your life, so if you have any concerns, speak up.