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Hospital Practices Can Make Patients Sicker

Up to half of seriously ill patients are sickened further by avoidable and risky bouts of food and sleep deprivation, according to a Johns Hopkins surgeon and prominent patient safety.

researcher is calling on hospitals to reform emergency room, surgical and other medical protocols that sicken up to half of already seriously ill patients — in some cases severely — with preventable and potentially dangerous bouts of food and sleep deprivation.

In a commentary published in BMJ Quality & Safety, Martin Makary, M.D., M.P.H., and his co-authors urge the wide adoption of protocols to end the practice of imposing needlessly long fasts on patients preparing for operations and to improve sleep quality in those recovering from such procedures.

“Surgery takes a huge physiologic toll on the body, and forcing sick people, especially the elderly, who are already in a frail state, to fast for eight to 12 hours, or even days, before surgery, only amplifies that stress on the body,” Makary says in a news release from Hopkins Medicine.

The authors describe the case of a 65-year-old woman who develops pneumonia at home and feels too sick to eat or drink much for several days. She then goes to the emergency room, where food is withheld by medical personnel in case she needs certain invasive tests or actual surgery. If needed, surgery might add more days without food and little sleep, owing to continuous monitoring and noise in and outside her hospital room.

The authors point out that when subjected to the same level of sleep deprivation and lack of nutrition, healthy people can develop weakened immune systems, dangerous fatigue and impaired judgment within 24 hours.

“Subject sick or elderly individuals to those same conditions and each next medical intervention becomes more dangerous as their illness takes a turn for the worse,” Makary says.

Healing may be delayed, he says, and often such individuals are readmitted after discharged home — a scenario so common it has been dubbed post-hospital syndrome.

According to the Hopkins news release, Makary and his colleagues argue that acute malnutrition and sleep deprivation, the latter already endemic in hospitalized patients, have increased as hospitals get busier, and as the population ages. Moreover, Makary and his co-authors say, with medical care now highly specialized, breakdowns in communication among medical staff often adds to delays in definitive care, extending periods of malnutrition and sleeplessness.

Currently, says Makary, most pre-operative patients are told not to eat or drink anything past midnight on the day before a scheduled surgery to prevent stomach contents from entering the lungs and blocking airflow. For patients who operations are scheduled early in the morning, that may not be a serious issue, but surgeries take place all day and are often delayed.


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