Feb. 19, 2010— -- Stuck in the hospital and not sure what you will pick up for your kid's birthday or how you will get it? If you were one of the less ethical patients, you might grab the heart monitor you're hooked up to.
Hospital consultant Jack Parker said he ran into a situation with a patient who took that tact while working with a hospital several years ago.
With a $1,000 heart monitor missing, the physician actually called the patient, who was adamant that she did not know where it had gone. The physician drove to the house.
"When he rapped on the door, the son came to the door, and guess what he had in his hand? The monitor," said Parker.
At a time when hospital expenditures are coming under increasing scrutiny, some hospitals are taking steps to halt a problem of patients treating hospital room amenities like an all-you-can-eat buffet.
"Not only do the towels, sheets, and linens walk out the door, but also the clock, the oxygen meters, and anything else that isn't tied down," one hospital executive recently wrote VHA, Inc., a network that helps hospitals improve efficiency and clinical care, and which Parker works for.
"We have had televisions that went out the door," Parker said, adding that now his clients bolt them down. "We have had IV pumps and wheelchairs out the door as well. We did have all the television controls missing until we finally purchased the type that is programmed to work with the only the TV set in the room. What an expense!"
Parker said the only real solution is for hospitals not to leave a lot of excess items in patients' rooms, such as not putting eight towels in a room that needs two. Taking a credit card as a deposit like a hotel does is likely not an option, he added, and asking nursing staff to be on the lookout isn't likely to work either.
While Parker said he has spoken with nurses who caught patients' relatives walking out with bags full of hospital linens, "I think, unfortunately, the nursing staff at the hospital is busy doing patient care ... so we're always asking them to keep an eye out, but it's not fair to put that onus on them."
For some expensive items, such as wheelchairs and medical equipment, extra security measures should be taken, such as tagging them with chips with alarms, Parker said, a step that likely will become more useful once such tags drop in price.
What's on Those Linens?
Like many other industries, hospital theft goes beyond customers. Among the most commonly stolen items are hospital scrubs, which may be taken by employees, physicians and residents.
An important counter is systems many hospitals are adopting in which employees need to swipe a card to get a fresh pair of scrubs, and the hospital can then track how many pairs an employee has.
While hospitals may not be able to adopt the policy hotels use to prevent theft, they may be able to benefit from better education about hospital theft.
"Do you want to take linen out of the hospital? I think the perception would be germs, disease," said Roger Graziano, director of materials management at Indiana Regional Medical Center.
In addition to not knowing what may be living on items they purloin from a hospital, petty thieves also may be unaware of some other features of items they might steal.
"I have seen them take the telephone -- which doesn't work at home," said Parker.
Of course, not all hospital theft is for home use. A few incidents over the past several years have highlighted professional gangs stealing hospital equipment.
"What we were able to learn is these products can be easily sold in [other countries]," said Joseph Bellino, president of the International Association for Healthcare Security and Safety.
Bellino was affected in the late 1990s when thieves were taking the scopes for colonoscopies in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area, where his hospital is located. A similar incident, he said, took place in the Pittsburgh area in 2007.
Hospitals may be seen as safe places, but just as recent stories about hospital-acquired infections showcase how unclean they can be -- even when run properly -- some of these incidents showcase they are, in some ways, ideal places for theft.
"When you think about it, a hospital is one of the few buildings open 24 hours a day to serve the public," said Bellino. "Even criminals need medical care, so you never know who's coming into the hospital."
For that reason, he said, patients also need to be aware of security risks for themselves.
"When you're in the hospital, you don't need a lot of money," Bellino said, adding that patients should give valuables to someone who is not staying there -- even items with mostly sentimental value.
"If it's a cross that my grandmother gave me as a child, how do you replace that?" he asked.
However, hospitals can reduce theft by having staff be more alert and locking cabinets and supply rooms, he said. Such measures can make even an inner-city hospital safer.
Bellino was able to help one such hospital bring down its losses from theft to $12,500. For comparison, VHA said its members average around $15,000 in theft losses.
While walking out of a hospital with a shopping cart full of items from a room might sound dramatic, it likely isn't the largest source of waste in hospitals.
Graziano said a larger contributor is waste.
For example, he said, a nurse might bring a box of gauze into a patient's room when he only needs two rolls. However, that box needs to be thrown away once the patient leaves because of potential infection.
As with the threat of theft if too many towels are left in a room, hospitals need to make sure patients aren't given items that cannot be used once they leave.
"We have to manage what we give to customers," Graziano said.