VHA Hospitals Note Increases in Obese Patients and Related Worker Injuries

January 31, 2005

A nationwide survey of VHA Inc. hospitals reportedly shows that caring for obese patients is an increasing challenge as providers continue to experience spiraling costs, increases in worker injuries and a significant number of patients who are obese, even in pediatrics.

Hospitals have reportedly seen the need for new equipment, supplies and training to properly care for this population. Many hospitals turn to their group purchasing relationships with companies like Novation, VHA’s supply services company, to access and save money on bariatric-related supplies and resources.

Conducted by Novation, the VHA member survey queried 584 directors of materials management and directors of surgical services across the country to determine the influence that treating severely obese patients (more than 100 pounds overweight) had on hospitals in 2004. It is a follow-up to a survey conducted in 2003. Eighty-two health care professionals, or 14 percent, responded.

“The cost of treating the severely obese patient shot up 24 percent in
just one year,” said Sandy Wise, RN, MBA, senior director of medical and surgical services at Novation. “What is really shocking is that 90 percent of obese patients are seen in the emergency departments and 53 percent of the pediatric patients are obese. These are not patients coming to the hospital for bariatric surgery, but are being seen for other medical conditions.”

Following the emergency room, the other areas where obese patients are treated are in intensive care units, surgery and cardiology.

In addition to increased hospital spending, obese patients have reportedly affected health care worker safety. Twenty-eight percent of respondents reported an increase in workplace injuries related to lifting obese patients, with back injuries being most common. With the current nursing shortage, hospitals reportedly cannot afford to have a nurse out because of an injury.

The majority, 84 percent, of VHA hospitals responding to the survey say they offer special training to help staff better understand how to care for obese patients. Training most often centers on lifting or transferring patients, including the proper use of lifting devices as well as sensitivity training.

Most survey respondents indicated they had to order new products or
supplies to accommodate obese patients last year. At the top of the product lists were furniture for patients and visitors, surgical supplies, and lift and transfer equipment. The most common supplies purchased included wheelchairs and beds. Hospitals have spent up to $233,000 on new supplies in 2004.

Wise added, “While this survey was not meant to produce exact figures, it supports the trend that treating obese patients is a major challenge for hospitals and health care professionals.”

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