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Study finds hospital scales are inaccurate

Will your doctor’s scale kill you?

Sure, you might FEEL like your bathroom scale is lying to you, and that’s certainly not doing your self-esteem any favors.

But, as a study published last month reveals, the scale in your doctor’s office or at the hospital very well COULD be lying–and the consequences are much more dire than a shot to your body confidence.

The consequences of an inaccurate scale aren’t just about the wrong number going down in your records. Dosages for certain drugs and for radiation are calculated according to body weight.

So you can see where this is going: Wrong body weight, wrong dose. It’s a calculation that can have killer consequences.

In fact, a couple of years ago, a 4-year-old child in the UK almost got an excessive dose of radiation when hospital staff weighed him using a faulty scale. Luckily, their error was caught in time. Not everyone is so lucky.

Receiving “big guns” treatment for illnesses like cancer is already scary, even when you assume that your doctors are giving you the right dosage. It’s not only dosages that ride on body weight calculations–doctors also gauge fluid volume changes and nutritional issues, both of which could indicate major health problems, by weight changes.

And when you see just how many scales could be off here in the United States…well, it’s pretty scary.

The recent U.S. study, published in Nursing 2011, points out that sometimes nurses just don’t weigh patients at all. Instead, they estimate–and errors in those estimations are reported to be as high as 42.2 percent. Why are they estimating? The most-often cited reason is that scales are “broken and/or unreliable.” I guess those exorbitant hospital bills aren’t going toward keeping scales in working order…

It gets worse. A study out of the University of North Carolina revealed that over 20 percent of the scales they tested weren’t accurate, and their accuracy actually dropped for measurements over 200 pounds.

In the more recent study, 239 patients were weighed on four different types of scales. Among the different kinds of scales, researchers found up to a 3.54-pound difference between scales.

That might not sound like much, but consider a person with heart failure. His weight will be monitored to catch early signs of deterioration. A 3-pound change could trigger the need for more tests. Picture that man being moved to different areas of the hospital. What if he’s put on a scale that unnecessarily indicates he needs those tests? Or worse–what if he’s put on one that doesn’t indicate the need when he actually does?

People like our heart patient here should always be monitored using the same scale–properly maintained, of course–to catch those small changes. That’s something you can watch with your own doctor.

Only three studies on scale accuracy have been carried out since 1981. Which is pretty shocking when you consider how crucial they are to getting proper treatment. A 2- or 3-pound difference could push a person with renal failure or cancer into the next higher or lower dosage range. Do you really want to be getting more medication than your body needs?

It’s important to note that this study was carried out with scales that are well maintained, calibrated, and properly zeroed for each patient–it was only to find how different types of scales differ in readings. If proper procedures aren’t carried out–well, that’s a whole new can of worms (and we don’t know how far off those scales in the University of North Carolina study were).

Clearly, there needs to be more attention paid in hospitals and doctors’ offices, but there are a few things you can do. Make sure doctors get a new baseline weight when you are transferred to different units within a hospital. And don’t be afraid to ask if the scale has been properly zeroed, and what the maintenance practices are.

Those questions might just save your life.

P.S. Keep reading for a hidden cause of cataracts–and what you can do.

Sources:
“Research Corner: Scale consistency study: How accurate are in patient hospital scales?” Lippincott’s Nursing Center (nursingcenter.com)

“Fears over faulty hospital scales,” BBC News (news.bbc.co.uk)