In-room attack shines light on hospital security

After an elderly woman was stabbed last week as she lay in her Aurora hospital bed, officials at suburban hospitals said it is impossible to prevent every incident but that recent changes in the health care industry should make patients more secure.

Authorities say 39-year-old Darrell Franklin of Aurora stabbed 78-year-old Naomi Johnson numerous times with a butter knife while Franklin was visiting his mother - who was a patient and sharing the hospital room with Johnson.

Shared rooms are becoming rarer each year, though, as hospitals throughout the suburbs renovate or build new facilities and convert to private rooms.

Sherman Hospital's new location on Randall Road in Elgin is a recent example of this trend. Every room in the 255-bed facility is private. Advocate Condell Medical Center is building a $92 million addition that will enable the Libertyville hospital to house almost all patients in private rooms. Delnor Hospital in Geneva moved to all private rooms after a 2008 addition.

"It's a more comfortable and private environment - which also translates into a more healing environment as well," Delnor spokesman Brian Griffin said. "Having private rooms does help to provide a secure environment for all patients."

Private rooms, however, are a luxury that older, more crowded facilities may not be able to afford.

"It's very hard to modify an older facility," said Joann Sulejmani, manager of safety and security at Sherman. "You work it out the best you can."

Provena Mercy Medical Center in Aurora, where Tuesday's attack occurred, is transitioning to all private rooms as part of a renovation process that is expected to be done in late 2011.

"Private rooms is somewhat of a consumer expectation at this point," Provena spokeswoman Heather Gates said. "We definitely want to follow the trend."

But Gates said even private rooms would not have been a foolproof safeguard Tuesday. "No security measure would have made a difference due to the extremely random nature of the crime," she said.

Still, there are many things hospitals do to make patients safer.

According to a recent survey on crime in hospitals conducted by the International Association for Healthcare Security and Safety, a vast majority of hospitals nationwide now employ a full-time security director. Most hospitals also have 24-hour security staff and/or video surveillance. Indeed, the security staff at Provena Mercy was credited with stopping the attack and restraining the assailant.

"They acted promptly and with the utmost professionalism," Gates said. "They made a great difference."

Despite the trend of increased security and privacy measures, the same hospital crime survey shows that the number of crimes at hospitals has almost doubled over the past five years, from about 7,800 in 2004 to almost 15,000 in 2009. Violent crime in hospitals, according to the report, went up by 200 percent during that period.

The report surveyed 212 hospitals among the global membership (primarily in the United States and Canada) of the International Association for Healthcare Security and Safety. There were 5,815 hospitals in the United States as of 2008, according to the American Hospital Association.

Joe Bellino, president of the health care security and safety group, said the rise in crime may be a product of hospitals and emergency rooms treating more psychiatric patients as safety nets for mental illnesses erode.

"We tend not to provide the funding, the resources for people with psychiatric illnesses - and then we have people who are in crisis," Bellino said. "It's difficult when you can't see what you're treating. These people are unpredictable."

An example of that was the death of Johnnie Russell in 2006 at Provena Mercy Hospital. Russell was a schizophrenic who was taken to the emergency room after causing a disturbance at an Aurora hotel. He was combative with emergency room personnel and later took his hospital roommate hostage, authorities said.

Police shot Russell at least three times and pelted him with stun beanbags after he pointed a gun at officers at the end of the 41/2-hour standoff, according to police and court testimony.

Bellino said the health care industry is doing a better job of training staff to recognize people who are in mental distress and respond appropriately. Many hospitals, such as Delnor in Geneva, are also training security staff and medical personnel to respond to security emergencies like Tuesday's incident in Aurora.

But hospital officials stress that they must strike the appropriate balance between patient safety and fostering a welcoming environment for patients and their loved ones.

"You would definitively lose something if you tried to control everyone that visits," said Sulejmani, of Elgin's Sherman Hospital. "We have a very welcoming environment, and we think that's very positive for our patients."

And the crime statistics need to be seen in context.

The 15,000 incidents amount to only about 71 crimes per hospital during the course of a year. And of those incidents, three-fourths of them are nonviolent crimes, such as thefts, according to the survey.

"This is a very bad incident, and it's rare," Bellino said. "But overall, we do a pretty good job in the health care industry of keeping crime down."

All of the 255 rooms in the new Sherman Hospital in Elgin are private. Like most large, urban facilities, the hospital also has 24-hour security officers and a manager who oversees safety and security efforts.