Adding insult to injury: Items reported missing, stolen at Lowcountry hospitals
CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - Planning for a funeral is never easy. It can be made more difficult when a family isn’t able to complete their loved one’s dying wish: to be buried with their most valuable possessions.
“My father wasn’t conscious from the moment he [got to the hospital],” says Tim Holt, of Summerville, who lost his father in June. “He didn’t know who was in the room or what was going on, and he couldn’t have been responsible for his personal effects.”
Holt says his father was transported to Trident Medical Center in North Charleston in June where he later died. When it came time to plan his father’s funeral, Holt says he couldn’t find some of his dad’s most precious belongings: his wallet, his wedding ring and a necklace that carried his late wife’s wedding ring.
“We had to bury him without it,” Holt says, “and that is the problem. [My father] didn’t make a lot of requests. He asked for a simple service, a Catholic service. He asked for bagpipes to play Amazing Grace, and he wanted to be buried with his wedding ring.”
“Those are pretty simple things, and we were able to do all of it except the wedding ring because Trident has lost that,” Holt claims. Holt says Trident misplaced what was most valuable to his dying father.
According to the 2022 Crime Survey from the International Association for Healthcare Security and Safety, theft is not out of the question, either, with 5.7 out of 100 hospital beds experiencing theft across the country in 2022.
That’s almost 6% of people walking into a hospital and leaving without what they came with, according to the survey.
“I think 6% sounds low,” Holt says, “but when you’re talking about the thousands of people that go through [Trident], that’s an incredibly high percentage.”
Incident reports from North Charleston Police detail how authorities responded to reports of theft at Trident Medical Center at 9330 Medical Plaza Drive a total of 310 times since the year 2000. Police have filed at least 74 theft reports since Jan. 1, 2018. Among the items allegedly stolen: wallets, purses and rings.
“None of [our] things have been recovered,” Holt says. “When he went to the hospital, he did go into the ER through an ambulance. They didn’t even check him into the ER, apparently, they took him straight to ICU, which has caused some communication issues because the ICU is blaming the ER, and the ER is blaming the ICU.
Note: Many of the reports for Trident show motor vehicle theft in the hospital’s parking lots and can’t necessarily be tied to theft among staff or patients inside the hospital.
Protecting patient belongings through policy
Trident Medical Center is not alone in the effort to protect patient belongings. Data from authorities on other flagship hospital locations, including Roper St. Francis’ downtown Charleston hospital and both of the Medical University of South Carolina locations downtown, show hundreds more reported thefts.
The reported thefts for the four locations (Roper, Trident and 2 MUSC locations) total at least 663 since Jan. 1, 2018.
“And that’s only reported,” Holt says. “What about the people who didn’t report it, like me?”
Filing a police report is considered a reactive measure, but proactive measures start within the hospital, according to officials with the Beryl Institute, an organization looking to transform human experience in hospitals.
“Every hospital has a different approach to protecting patient belongings,” Kelly Holland, co-chair of the Lost Belongings Work Group at the Beryl Institute, says. Holland is also the manager of Patient and Family Experience at the University of Vermont Medical Center.
“We’re saying ‘come into our facility, trust us, we’re going to take good care of you, but yet, we can’t guarantee we’re going to keep track of your stuff,’” Holland says. “So, we ask ourselves, ‘what can we do as a patient and family experience community to raise awareness? And what are things that we can begin to implement at our organizations to really get a handle on this?’”
The Beryl Institute has organizational members around the world and in the Lowcountry. The only hospital listed as a member in the Charleston area is MUSC.
“And when these things happen, it’s devastating for us,” Holland says. “If it’s devastating for us, I can’t even imagine how devastating it is for families.”
Holt says Trident has not shown any empathy since he started his journey to find his father’s belongings.
“When I’ve spoken to people in the ICU or in the ER, the number one answer I’ve gotten is ‘it happens. What do you want us to do about it?’” Holt says. “That’s pretty off-putting to not have some sort of empathy or concern as any entity that large to simply say ‘it happens.’ I don’t think that that’s an answer.”
Officials at the Beryl Institute say Holt’s experience, unfortunately, isn’t uncommon, and it comes down to the hospital’s policies.
“Some [hospitals] have a very robust policy. Some are like, ‘we’re just trying to dip our toes in the water because we know it’s an issue. So, we’re putting some focus on it.’ So, they’re just starting the policy process.”
Holland and others at the Institute meet periodically in work groups to discuss best practices.
“The commonality that we all have is in our understanding of just how important this is to our patients and our families,” Holland says. “And to me, if that’s the only commonality, we’re winning, right?”
Spokesman Rod Whiting with Trident Medical Center provided this statement on Holt’s experience and their policy on belongings:
“We know being admitted to the hospital can be stressful. That’s why patients are given the opportunity to store their belongings in a secure location. If they choose against that, they’re given storage options that help them keep their items with them. In the rare instance that something valuable is misplaced, we review the patient’s travel through the hospital and can review security footage.”
Officials with Roper St. Francis provided documents on how staff should keep track of patient belongings, including how patients should sign and date some forms and how to properly use hospital safes. The policy also states, “Upon admission to a unit, a nurse will document all items the patient is keeping with them, e.g.: cell phone, iPad, hearing aids, glasses, etc.” It goes on to say belongings should be documented as patients and their items are moved from room to room.
MUSC officials provided documentation of what happens to a patient’s belongings as soon as that patient enters the hospital. The documents detail an in-depth checklist, including what location and what building the patient is at, what items the hospital can take and secure and the process in which staff should review belongings before a patient is sent off.
In Holt’s case, he says his father never should have been responsible for his personal effects having entered the hospital comatose.
“It’s not the value of the ring that concerns us and led us to where we are today,” Holt says. “It’s that my father had to be buried without his wedding ring and without mom’s wedding ring. That’s what upsets me.”
“If we don’t do something about the loss and theft that is happening now, it won’t end, and it’s going to be somebody else burying their parents without their wedding ring.”
Trident declined an on-camera interview and declined to comment further on Holt’s case, citing HIPAA laws.
Officials at the Beryl Institute say the best way to protect yourself from the risk of losing your belongings is by taking proactive measures: leave your expensive and sentimental belongings at home. Holland says an emergency room visit is not easy to plan for, but for scheduled procedures, have a game plan for what to do with your jewelry, electronics and other valuables.
Holland says you can also leave your glasses at home – it’s a common item that goes missing (lost in bedsheets, etc.). Hospitals often have readers you can use. Leaving your cell phone is also an option – write down a few phone numbers and use the room phone if it’s available.
In the meantime, the Beryl Institute says they’re always working on recruiting more organizations to share their best practices with to hopefully put an end to whatever is leading to patient belongings going missing. You can read more about their mission here.
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