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Editorial: Delay in fixing Cook County’s hospital system could be deadly

Crain's Chicago, 4/25/11

Health care is expensive enough without spending money needlessly.

That's what Cook County hospitals are doing. As Greg Hinz reported last week, an investigation by Crain's and the Better Government Assn. shows the public hospital system spends millions more than it should on overtime pay. Total overtime hours exceed industry-recommended norms by a wide margin.

Excessive overtime strains not just the county hospital budget but also the nurses. As the story reported, many are working consecutive 12- and 16-hour days.

Tired nurses working in thinly staffed hospital wards endanger patients. Exhaustion leads to errors. And a mistake in a routine medical procedure can turn fatal, as the tragic case of James Tyree at the University of Chicago Medical Center illustrates.

County officials blame the overtime on recent layoffs and union rules that complicate staffing decisions. They also say the county has a new software program that will help allocate nursing assignments more efficiently and cut down on overtime. But they won't deploy it at the hospitals until a countywide system is ready later this year.

Why wait? Every day of delay costs the county money and increases the risk of a terrible accident.

The situation at Cook County hospitals is another example of the woes afflicting our health care system. We can save lives with unimaginably complex surgeries. But we can't ensure that the most basic procedures are done properly.

Much of the problem is rooted in cost. Medical care is expensive. It takes a lot of trained professionals to run a hospital right and keep patients safe.

Cook County needs more nurses. The problem is where to find the money. All that overtime pay going to the current overworked staff is a good place to look. If the county can figure out a way to manage those nurses better, it will free up cash to hire more.

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