|Taking Vital Signs is an image from the U.S. Federal Government in the Public Domain|
Anyone who has spent at least one night in hospital probably has heard these words or some variant. Depending on a specific hospital’s protocol, you may hear this every three or four hours—day and night. If spared the tender mercies of hospitals up to now, be happy but aware that your time almost certainly will come.
When you are an inpatient at a hospital for anything halfway serious, the rules say staff must check to see how you are doing, usually every three or four hours. Unless you are in a critical state and constantly monitored by electronic devices, this is done by checking your “Vital Signs.” (See the University of Florida Medical Information Server for a good description of Vital Signs.) These signs consist of blood pressure, pulse, temperature and breathing rate. There may be more checks such as the level of oxygen saturation in your blood, read by a little fingertip device and, if diabetic, glucose level, read by pricking a finger with a lancet.
While the intent of these checks obviously are highly desirable, in practice, they can be one of the most annoying and even debilitating events encountered during a hospital stay. During the day, having a nurse or nurse assistant coming into see you every three or four hours to check you out is no big deal. The downfall comes at night.
In the first place, it is very difficult to sleep in a hospital. You may be in pain, worried, uncomfortable from various procedures, recovering from surgery, and buffeted by unusual noises from the hallways. Imagine finally dropping off to sleep and being suddenly awoken by a knock on the door or just a “Mr. Brown?” next to your bedside. This sudden awakening is followed by a voice saying, “I need to check your vitals.” No one can sleep through this process unless rendered unconscious from illness.
Assume you finally got to sleep around 9:00 PM. The vital signs alert, in this particular hospital on a three-hour cycle, jumpstarts you from a fitful sleep, waking you up anytime between 11:45 PM to 12:15 AM the first time. The random time happens because the nurse or assistant assigned to your ward overnight cannot possibly check each patient precisely on the dot of three hours. Once you finally get back to sleep, you cannot even count on the next awakening to be exactly three hours later because either the shift has changed or the staff chooses a different sequence from one room to the next. As the night proceeds, it is very likely that your actual sleep periods will continually reduce as the intervals between the planned routine and the reality shorten.
The result is typical of any other form of regular sleep deprivation: Behavioral changes including irritability, a weakened immune system, exhaustion, impaired coordination and hypertension. To make matters worse, the elderly are more susceptible to sleep deprivation than the young are. Yet is the elderly who are more likely to be hospitalized.
Think about it. Isn’t it bad enough to be sick and in the hospital without being awaked every three or four hours? Does this even make sense?
Is there an illogical premise underlying this practice? If the point is to verify the patient is doing as well as expected with no deterioration, on what is the assumption based that nothing will go wrong, for example, between a check at 12:00 AM and another three or four hours later? A patient actually could die during such an interval. Are there statistical studies showing that the likelihood of any deterioration in the patient’s state at a shorter interval than the standard vital check routine timing is very low?
Who is the real beneficiary of this practice? Is it really the patient, who almost certainly is having a great deal of difficulty in getting any restful and healing sleep? Is the real beneficiary the hospital and its staff, who, in the event of a mishap or unfortunate outcome, can at least say, “Well, he was fine when we last checked on him.”
Is this repetitious intrusion another example of a hospital rule that focuses not on patient-centered care but on administrative efficiency?
|Original and photo reproduction both in the Public Domain (Wikimedia)|