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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. Nurses and hospitals in several states have clashed this year over how to improve patient safety. A new study in the Journal of Patient Safety finds that hospital mistakes contribute to as many as one in six deaths in the U.S.

One of the most common problems is patients falling. John Ryan of member station KUOW in Seattle reports on what hospitals are doing about it.

JOHN RYAN, BYLINE: Gene White sits on his back porch near a garden fountain. Just walking here from his bedroom was an ordeal for the retired airline pilot.

GENE WHITE: I did have cancer and it turned out to be lymphoma.

RYAN: But White says it's not cancer that has left him weak. Six months ago, after he'd recovered from his lymphoma, he went to Swedish Medical Center, Seattle's largest hospital, for some back pain. He was set to go home after an overnight stay.

WHITE: 4:00 a.m. came, and I hadn't slept a bit.

RYAN: White called a nurse.

WHITE: She says, I'll get you something.

RYAN: That something was the sleeping pill Ambien. It's one of a dozen sleep aids that the FDA says can lead to sleepwalking and even sleep-driving. The Mayo Clinic in Minnesota has found that hospital patients who've taken Ambien are four times more likely to suffer a fall.

WHITE: I went to sleep almost immediately, and I got in a dreamlike state. I was flying a beautiful wooden-interior airplane about the size of a DC-3. I was having a hell of a good time.

RYAN: The next thing White knew, he was crumpled on the floor.

WHITE: So, I had broken three ribs on my left side, hitting the wash basin.

RYAN: Instead of going home that morning, he had to spend two more weeks in the hospital, then months in a nursing facility. Hospitals in 39 states don't have to report falls. Here in Washington state, they do. Falls injured or killed at least 92 Washington hospital patients last year. That's a small fraction of the many thousands of hospital visits, but safety experts call bad falls "never events."

They should never happen inside the protective embrace of a hospital.

JUNE ALTARAS: Zero falls is certainly our goal.

RYAN: June Altaras is chief nursing officer at Swedish Medical Center. She can't discuss White's case without violating privacy law, but she says the hospital carefully assesses each patient's risk of falling. The hospital considers anyone on sleeping pills high risk. They're supposed to get special attention. That would include a bed alarm that goes off when a patient gets up.

ALTARAS: We wanted something very distinctive so you knew exactly what was going on, and you get there very quickly. It rises above the level of all the other noises in the unit.

RYAN: This is the alarm.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING RENDITION OF "MARY HAD A LITTLE LAMB")

RYAN: "Mary Had A Little Lamb" can be pretty annoying.

ALTARAS: We get complaints almost every day, patients begging the nurses to turn it off.

RYAN: Annoying or not, Altaras says evidence shows the alarms work at preventing falls. Gene White says there was no alarm on his bed. At the time, some beds at Swedish had alarms; some didn't. Last month, Swedish installed a brand-new fleet of hospital beds. All of them have alarms built in. Nurses say alarms help, but are no substitute for good nursing. Bernedette Haskins is on her half-hour lunch break at Swedish.

BERNEDETTE HASKINS: You still need a person to be close enough nearby to be able to respond to the alarm.

RYAN: Nurses' unions say medical mishaps of all kinds often share a root cause: understaffing.

HASKINS: Every nurse has a story about being short-staffed, about working an entire 12-hour shift without a break.

RYAN: Fatigue and just not having enough hands on deck can lead to errors in the quality of care suffering. Unions are pushing state and federal legislation to force hospitals to beef up nursing staffs. Hospitals say they can reduce errors without government-mandated hiring. The Washington state hospital with the most falls in recent years is Auburn Medical Center.

Last year, after new owners bought the small hospital, they overhauled its safety procedures and increased staff by more than 100. Hospital management says Auburn's rate of falls fell by two-thirds in less than a year. For NPR News, I'm John Ryan in Seattle.

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