Hospital supplies might leave with patients

Theft is most likely an underreported problem that can strain already-tight margins.

By Victoria Stagg Elliott — Posted March 5, 2010

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A patient discharged from a hospital may take more with them than their own suitcase and instructions for follow-up care.

They or their family members may help themselves to towels, linens, light bulbs, television remote controls, toilet paper or surgical scrubs, according to a survey released Feb. 9 by the hospital purchasing collective VHA Inc. The company is based in Irving, Texas.

Other items reported as taken ranged from telephones, which often will not even not function outside the hospital, to clocks, washcloths, fans, food service items, stethoscopes and digital thermometers.

"Patients need to understand that hospitals are not hotels and do not factor room supplies into the cost of health care," said Jack Parker, an implementation manager with VHA. "Hospitals have to eat the cost for any stolen item, which decreases the hospitals' operating margins, and hospitals are already under enormous financial pressures."

Researchers surveyed 96 hospital materials management executives. About 64% said theft of supplies was a problem costing their organization as much as $80,000 annually. Several respondents said patients would take "anything that is not secured."

Not all of this theft is malicious, because some patients may inadvertently throw something in their bag that is not theirs, according to the report. Staffers also may run off with some of these items, but analysts suggest that this problem may cost hospitals as much as $52 million annually, although possibly much more.

"You just have to watch your supplies," Parker said.

To reduce the likelihood of patients walking off with supplies, experts suggest not overstocking the rooms. Other security measures, such as electronic control strips sewn to bed linens can be effective, but also expensive. Some hospitals also have security guards check patient bags on the way out.

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