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What is hospital-acquired delirium?

On Behalf of | Jan 13, 2023 | Medical Malpractice

Most people are familiar with HAIs, which can stand for hospital-acquired infections or healthcare-associated infections. Fewer are aware of something called “hospital-acquired delirium.” In fact, they’re often not aware that this is what a loved one is suffering.

Hospital-acquired delirium most commonly affects elderly people. It typically starts within a patient’s first three days in the hospital. Sometimes it can begin within hours. 

What causes hospital-acquired delirium?

It’s typically caused by the treatment the patient is receiving and simply the experience of being hospitalized. This can include a combination of medications and equipment that restrains movement, including things like breathing tubes and catheters. Changes in eating and sleeping schedules can contribute to it, as can dehydration and various infections.

Signs include hallucinations (visual and/or auditory), paranoia and alternating between agitation and lethargy. It is preventable with close observation and action. However, if there’s no close family around who knows that this is not normal behavior for their loved one, it can be mistaken for dementia. 

Sometimes even when a family member tries to tell staff their loved one isn’t behaving normally, it doesn’t help. Staff may be more concerned with the medical issue(s) that landed the patient in the hospital in the first place than their mental and emotional state.

It is preventable

Medical professionals can prevent hospital-acquired delirium by changing their medication or lessening their dosage if that’s an option. Just making sure they’re getting enough to drink and eat can help.

Often, interacting with a patient by talking to them, playing card games, reading to them or walking with them, if they’re able, can help keep their mind focused. If there isn’t enough staff for that and family can’t be around regularly, they can assign volunteers. Even visits from support dogs have been shown to have an effect.

If undiagnosed or misdiagnosed and untreated, this delirium can last for weeks or longer. If the condition occurred during a patient’s final hospital stay at the end of their life, it likely had no effect on the outcome. However, if a loved one suffered hospital-acquired delirium during a hospital stay that caused them harm, it’s wise to find out if you have cause for a malpractice claim.