Patient Thefts Cost Hospitals $52 Million Annually

From AMN Healthcare, Inc. on February 19, 2010

These tight economic times have put a lot of pressure on hospitals to cut costs.  Key priorities include eliminating wasteful spending and improper use of assets, which saves money without negatively impacting patient care.  One way to do this, it appears, is to stop patients from walking off with millions of dollars’ worth of supplies every year.

A recent survey conducted by VHA, Inc., a national network of hospitals which, among other services, helps members achieve maximum savings, has identified that the theft of hospital property by patients is costing hospitals $52 million annually. Sixty-four percent of the nearly 100 hospital executives surveyed reported that items were taken by patients and/or family members.

“Theft by patients isn’t a new problem,” remarked Jack Parker, MBA, certified materials resource professional. Parker is the implementation manager at VHA. “I’ve worked in this industry for 30 years and have seen it that whole time.”

The most common items taken, according to the survey, are pillows, towels, linens, phones and surgical scrubs.

“Unfortunately, a hospital isn’t like a hotel; they can’t just bill a patient’s credit card for a missing item,” explained Parker. “Often room charges are a flat rate per day based on the condition of the person occupying the room. Even if there were a good way to track what items are taken, there isn’t a way to itemize the bill.”

Lillee Gelinas, RN, BSN, MSN, FAAN
Lillee Gelinas, RN, BSN, MSN, FAAN, vice presdient of VHA, Inc., says nurses should be aware of suspicious behavior, but shouldn't be put in the position of policing patients.

In order to decrease patient theft, VHA encourages its member hospitals not to put excess linens or towels in patient rooms. Medical staff should also be attentive to not leave implements such as thermometers, blood pressure cuffs and stethoscopes where visitors to the hospital can easily pick them up.

“It’s important that nurses not be put in a role of ‘police officer’ in order to maintain the caring relationship with patients and to establish a trusting rapport early in the hospital stay,” stated Lillee Gelinas RN, BSN, MSN, FAAN, vice president and chief nursing officer, VHA, Inc. “However, nurses and other nursing personnel are the ones who are most vigilant due to the amount of time they spend in the patient’s room. If they suspect a problem, or just have a feeling of concern about the situation, they should bring it to the attention of their manager immediately.”

“Other methods to prevent theft include tags which can be attached to linens and sound an alarm when removed from the hospital, much like you find in retail stores, and radio transmitters which can track the location of equipment such as wheelchairs and stretchers, but these are all expensive measures,” said Parker.

Patients are not the only ones taking items. Hospital staff members are also guilty, particularly when it comes to scrubs.

“Maybe someone is in a hurry at the end of the day and they leave the hospital in their scrubs, then they just don’t get returned or there is a significant delay before they are returned,” Parker remarked.

To decrease the number of scrubs missing in action, some hospitals have installed a sort of scrubs vending machine. The machine works by reading ID cards and keeping track of how many sets of scrubs an individual has checked out. When the items are retuned, the ID card is swiped and then credited for the return. The hospital can put limits on the number of scrub sets each person can have at a given time.

Another area of waste is happening when patients are sent home with more supplies than necessary.

“Staff nurse committees are putting additional focus on a number of discharge issues, including patient education, timeliness of discharge and issues with follow-up appointments with physicians. By engaging nurses and providing them with information about the issue and their impact on it, their awareness is heightened and they can more actively play a role as part of the solution,” Gelinas added. “The optimum goal is to make sure nurses are sending patients home with the appropriate amount of supplies, no more and no less.“