Industry Voices—4 ways to minimize costs through safe patient handling

hospital doctor with patient
While many hospitals and healthcare organizations have established safe patient handling programs, unfortunately they are not all effective. (monkeybusinessimages/Getty Images)

When thinking of dangerous jobs, fields like construction and manufacturing likely come to mind.

But a study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) found that hospital workers actually have a higher rate of injury and illness than workers in these industries. This can be extremely costly for hospitals and other healthcare organizations. In fact, BLS statistics reveal costs associated with overexertion injuries alone in the healthcare industry were estimated to be $1.7 billion in 2015. 

Having a safe patient handling program is one way to reduce the risk of workplace injuries in hospitals and, by doing so, cut down on costs. Veterans Affairs (VA) hospitals across the country have achieved a 40% reduction in injuries to care providers since 2006 by adopting a Safe Patient Handling and Mobility Program.

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An Aon survey drawn from 53 healthcare systems with roughly 1,000 hospitals in all 50 states shows patient handling injuries are the most expensive type of hospital worker injuries in terms of wage replacement. On average, a workers’ compensation claim related to patient handling cost $15,600 in 2011, with wage replacement accounting for the largest share of this cost ($12,000).

There are also indirect costs associated with patient handling injuries—like employee turnover, training, overtime, incident investigation time, worker productivity and morale—that are less visible on a balance sheet but still affect the bottom line. With staffing shortages in the healthcare industry on the rise, we can only expect these indirect costs to continue to grow.

While many hospitals and healthcare organizations have established safe patient handling programs, unfortunately they are not all effective. Common causes for unsuccessful safe patient handling programs can be related to equipment, lack of discipline and lack of support. 

Equipment challenges may be related to not enough equipment—or the appropriate type of equipment—available for use, equipment not easily accessible and/or the belief the task at hand can be completed faster without using the equipment. Lack of discipline occurs when an organization’s discipline process is not being followed for an employee who has chosen not to adhere to the healthcare organization’s policy for using equipment with a patient handling task. The same discipline process for not following any organization’s policy should take place. Lack of support for a safe patient handling program is evidenced by leadership not being on board with the program and/or not making employee safety a priority.

This serves as an important reminder that creating an effective safe patient handling program is about much more than just purchasing equipment. Fortunately, there are a few best practices hospital executives can implement to maximize the benefits of these programs and minimize the costs associated with patient handling injuries.

  1. Safety-First Culture

Establish a culture of safety that starts with leadership and filters through all levels. Buy-in from the executive team is essential to sustaining any positive cultural changes.

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  1. Safe Patient Handling Committee

Create a program that follows the state law and includes a safe patient handling committee. Invite frontline employees to join the committee and encourage their input. Once policies and procedures have been communicated with the staff, establish frequent checkpoints throughout the year and consequences for not following these procedures.

  1. Regular Training

Offer equipment training upon hire, annually and as deemed necessary in between annual trainings (especially if an injury has occurred). Training should include a hands-on demonstration. Assure equipment is accessible (including slings for the equipment on all shifts) and contains tools appropriate for various types of patient handling tasks, such as equipment that can lift a patient from the floor after a fall.

  1. Preventive Maintenance

Schedule preventive maintenance on all equipment. Conduct a needs assessment for additional or new equipment, and build funding for purchases into the budget.

An increasingly heavier patient population and an aging healthcare workforce will make safe handling programs increasingly essential. Any steps taken to minimize risks related to patient handling will offer substantial benefits for hospital caregivers and executives in the form of less severe injuries, less time away from work and less money spent on these issues.

James Clancy is a loss prevention manager at NJM Insurance Group.

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