This member-only article appears in the June issue of Patient Safety Monitor Journal.
There’s a case where a World War II POW committed suicide by hitting himself in the head with an empty metal canteen after days without water. While that happened in the hold of a Japanese prison boat, not a hospital, it highlights how resourceful a suicidal person can be when it comes to finding ways to self-harm. Earbud cords, compact mirrors, trash bags, bed frames, IV tubing, socks, and much more can be used to attempt suicide in a hospital setting.
With the renewed focus on ligature and self-harm, facilities need to undergo a complete reassessment of the physical environment where patients with behavioral or mental health problems are cared for.
That goes especially for emergency departments. Annually, 460,000 emergency department visits occur following cases of self-harm, and those patients are six times more likely to make another suicide attempt in the future. To prevent patients from further harming themselves, staff should start each shift by reviewing emergency department rooms designated for treatment of behavioral health patients to remove any items patients could use in a suicide attempt.
You may want to use a checklist to ensure no items are overlooked. In rooms that can’t be completely cleared of ligatures or other instruments for self-harm, facilities should have trained one-on-one observers available to keep patients safe.
“As healthcare organizations and accrediting bodies intensify efforts to make the healthcare environment safer, it is critical to use available data and expert opinion to have clear guidelines on what constitutes serious environmental hazards that must be corrected and what mitigation strategies are acceptable in those situations when all potential hazards cannot be removed,” wrote The Joint Commission in a special report on suicide prevention.
Boarded patients a concern
When evaluating physical risks in emergency departments, remember that behavioral health patients awaiting transfer to a psychiatric unit or facility may be in the ER for hours, if not days, says Ernest E. Allen, a former Joint Commission life safety surveyor and current patient safety account executive with The Doctors Company in Columbus, Ohio. The company is a medical malpractice insurer.
Minimizing self-harm opportunities in the physical environment is not only a patient safety issue, but also vital to the hospital’s bottom line, says Allen, who presented an HCPro webinar last November on evaluating the environment of care for suicide risk.
That’s because patient suicides can not only result in investigations by CMS and your accrediting organization, but also a visit from your local or state department of health and possible fines. Lawsuits from family members can draw unwanted media attention.
Incidents of self-harm by patients also create poor morale among staff, notes Allen. He recommends you consider designating a room or rooms in your ER area to specifically house psychiatric patients if necessary.