Parents of hospitalized children can be involved in safety issues in both good and bad ways


Today, parents are often given open visiting hours to be with their sick, hospitalized child. Many parents take advantage of this option and remain with their child as much as possible. For an ill child, this can be comforting and provide an important emotional benefit, which at times might help them get better faster. A study published in 2009 also suggests that parents who stay with their hospitalized child can help detect events, for example, errors with medicines that could harm their child. However, the study also showed that parents can sometimes cause the harmful event.1

The study was done over a 5 ½ year period. During that time, 2,500 harmful or potentially harmful events were recorded. About 100 of these events involved parents. Examples of the events are described below.

Parents detecting safety problems

The most common problems detected by parents were errors with medicines and tubes or drains that became dis-connected. Examples include:

  • A mother who realized the wrong dose of a medicine used to treat heart failure was prescribed for her child. The error would have resulted in her child getting five times more medicine than needed.

  • A mother who noticed the wrong weight listed on her child’s medical records. The weight was used to calculate doses of medicine for her child.

  • Parents who noticed their child having trouble breathing.

The safety problems detected by parents often continued for about 10 hours before being discovered. This suggests that without the parents’ help, some problems might have continued without correction. All of these events were detected by parents only after visiting hours were no longer restricted to just a few hours a day. This suggests that it is easier for parents to detect safety problems if they spend more hours at their child’s bedside, observing and participating in their care.

Parents contributing to problems

The most common problems to which parents contributed involved the dis-connection of tubes and drains, errors with medicines, and physical trauma. Examples include:

Most of the disconnected tubes and drains happened in very young children, from 4 days to 1 ½   years old. These errors initiated by parents were discovered by hospital staff within an average of 15 minutes. Most of these events caused moderate harm. However, quick discovery of the problems averted serious harm.      

Parents affected by safety events

Parents are often affected by events that happen to their child or even other children. The most common types of problems affecting parents involved miscommunication and feeding mix-ups. Examples include:

  • Mothers who required blood tests to check for viruses because their breast milk was fed to another child.
  • Parents who found out their child’s diagnosis in the hospital cafeteria.
  • Parents who were not informed that their child’s operation had been cancelled.

Failures such as these increase parental stress during a child’s hospitalization. It’s not the parents’ duty alone to guarantee the safety of the child but the healthcare providers who are providing care. The steps listed below can help parents partner effectively with healthcare providers to best protects the child from accidental harm. 

Educate yourself. Learn about the disease, medical tests, and the treatment plan for your hospitalized child. Also learn what medicines your child is receiving, the prescribed doses, and when and how they are given. Write down important information. A parent who knows what to expect can help recognize when something is not right.

Report anything that worries you.
Report anything that worries you or does not seem right with your child. Do not be afraid to speak up. Although doctors and nurses are highly trained regarding your child’s medical condition, you know your child better than anyone on the medical team. Your observations are extremely important.

Ask questions.
If you have questions about your child’s care, you need to ask. Also, if you do not understand the answer you get, you need to ask again.

Be persistent.
Keep asking questions or voicing your concerns about your child’s condition or care until you get an answer that you are entirely comfortable with. If you feel no one is really addressing your concerns, ask to speak to the doctor in charge (medical director), nurse in charge (nursing di-rector), and the patient representative.

Speak up about the care provided to your child.
If you believe something is not being done correctly—perhaps a medicine or medicine dose does not seem right—do not be afraid to speak up. Healthcare professionals are human; they could make a mistake.

Don’t reconnect tubes. Be aware of the tubes or drains attached to your child. If a tube or drain becomes dislodged or misconnected, do not try to reconnect the tube or drain yourself. Call for a nurse to reattach the tube or drain. (Helpful parents and visitors who have reconnected dislodged tubes or drains have sometimes attached them to the wrong connector. Sadly, misconnected tubes and drains have occasionally resulted in serious injuries, even death.)   

Get rest. Although parents who stay with their child during hospitalization can help detect problems, parents need adequate rest to effectively participate in their child’s care. Adequate rest is also necessary for safety. For example, a child could fall out of the arms of an overtired parent trying to rock the child to sleep. Don’t be afraid to sleep while your child sleeps. You can ask nurses to wake you if they need to provide care to your child.   


Reference: 1) Frey, B, etal. Involvement of parents in critical incidents in a neonatal-paediatric intensive care unit. Qual Saf Health Care. 2009;18(6):446-449.

Created on March 2, 2011

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