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Hospitals seek to stop wheelchair theft

Sunday, July 27, 2003

By Christopher Snowbeck, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Wheelchairs are to hospitals what shopping carts are to grocery stores -- a necessity, but also a theft problem.

Every year, scores of chairs disappear from Allegheny County hospitals. Most report that they typically lose about 10 percent of their wheelchair fleet each year, but annual losses have topped 25 percent at some hospitals.

It's not usually a case of wheelchair thieves swiping chairs out from under patients, and the heists seldom show up on police blotters.

"If I call the police, what am I going to tell them? Be on the lookout for a lost wheelchair?" wondered Fran Colalella, director of patient transport at Allegheny General Hospital.

But the evidence sometimes appears in public.

One wheelchair whisked away from Allegheny General wound up abandoned at the National Aviary. A West Penn Hospital worker once retrieved a pilfered chair from the Amtrak station Downtown.

In some cases, the thefts seem like innocent acts. A family member wheels a discharged patient to the parking garage, transfers the relative into the car and takes the chair along for the ride. Frequent trips to health care facilities can result in patients taking home more than one hospital chair.

One man called the VA Pittsburgh Healthsystem to ask for someone to retrieve some of the seven wheelchairs that were cluttering his house.

But with price tags that can range from $250 to $500, wheelchairs aren't cheap to replace. And their absence can affect patient care, as workers struggle to ferry patients to and from appointments with fewer chairs.

To stop hot wheels, hospitals are better guarding their exits and tagging their chairs with monitors. Mercy Hospital might even resort to a librarian tactic by observing a wheelchair amnesty day -- just bring back the wheelchair, no questions asked.

"It's an issue at every hospital," said Mark Schmeler, director of a University of Pittsburgh Medical Center service that outfits patients with specialized wheelchairs.

CartTronics, a San Diego company that sells anti-theft systems for grocery store shopping carts, says it regularly receives inquiries from hospitals about preventing wheelchair theft. The CartTronics system locks wheels when a shopping cart reaches a grocery store's perimeter, but that strategy could raise liability problems with wheelchairs, said Don Chartrand, spokesman for the company.

While CartTronics is still in the design phase for a modified product that could work with wheelchairs, Allegheny General has opted for a different technology.

Earlier this year, the hospital began tagging wheelchairs with transmitters that communicate with sensors placed throughout the hospital. The tags are also placed on gurneys, IV pumps and other pieces of movable equipment for which hospital staff routinely must spend time hunting.

The computer system tracks the last sensor that the equipment passed, which allows workers to pinpoint where the supplies are in the hospital. The system also tracks how long it's been since an equipment piece passed a sensor, which helps staff identify equipment that is sitting idle.

But this "dwelling time" feature lets Colalella spot stolen wheelchairs.

Sitting in his office recently, Colalella peered at his computer screen and spotted four chairs that had been dwelling in the James Street parking garage for between 30 and 133 days. Given that hospital escorts make a sweep of the parking garage every day to round up wheelchairs, Colalella knew the four had been stolen.

The Allegheny General system is made by GE Medical Systems and, at this point, is just helping the hospital get a handle on the stolen wheelchair issue. Colalella estimates that 12 to 15 of the hospital's 150 regular-sized wheelchairs are stolen each year.

Like GE, Baxter Healthcare makes a similar tracking product, although its system can either activate a security camera or alert guards when a tagged wheelchair goes through an exit.

The company began marketing the QuickFind system earlier this year, primarily as a way to track infusion pumps that hospitals regularly lease from Baxter. But potential customers have noted the wheelchair application, said Perry Stearns, product manager.

"Many have mentioned that they lose wheelchairs at a pretty steady clip," Stearns said. "Some people have gone to flea markets and rummage sales and found their equipment up for sale."

Previously, Allegheny General attempted some low-tech strategies to corral wandering wheelchairs. All chairs were decorated with a prominent "AGH" stencil and outfitted with security bars that prevent people from folding up the chairs and putting them in the trunk. But even with the bars, the chairs are defenseless against a family driving an SUV, Colalella said.

Hospitals once required patients to be escorted out of the hospital by a worker pushing the wheelchair, he said. But as hospitals have started letting family members do the pushing, it's created an opportunity for wheelchair pinching, he said.

That, in turn, has led to the ultimate reversal of fortune -- a call to Colalella from the local Giant Eagle reporting that one of the hospital's chairs had been left at the grocery.

At the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System's Oakland hospital, as many as 200 wheelchairs have disappeared in a year. The current focus on wheelchair theft came from an unlikely source -- an effort to reduce hospital infections.

Sponsored by the Pittsburgh Regional Healthcare Initiative, a nonprofit group, the program found that one reason hospital workers don't always wash their hands or take other precautions to prevent infections is that they are in a rush. And one reason they lack time is that they spend so much of it hunting for supplies, such as wheelchairs.

Some staff members reported having to spend more than 20 minutes looking for a wheelchair, while others would horde chairs in their department, said Peter Perreiah, an engineer with the health-care initiative.

Because of the lack of chairs, patients wound up missing appointments for everything from physical therapy to radiology tests.

The hospital subsequently bought 200 wheelchairs to replenish its supply. Then it called on hospital escort workers to maintain wheelchair supplies at clearly marked stations throughout the hospital.

The VA system in Pittsburgh includes three facilities, and part of the missing chair problem was the result of patients being shipped with their chairs from the inpatient hospital in Oakland to the nursing home in Aspinwall. Now, color coding, stencils and a label plate identify the chairs' rightful home.

In cases where patients try to take chairs home with them, valet parking attendants have been given guidance on how to intervene.

"We gently remind them that this wheelchair needs to stay in the medical center," said Terry Gerigk, associate director of the VA system. "We give them the phone number of the department that's responsible for ordering them a wheelchair, if they need one. ... The VA is in business to provide veterans with what they need, but we want to make sure the wheelchair they take home fits them."

UPMC's Schmeler said people who take chairs from UPMC Presbyterian often did so because they lacked insurance and couldn't afford to buy their own.

"You've got a population of poor people who fall through the cracks," Schmeler said. "Their chair breaks, they get admitted to the hospital and then they find a way of taking a wheelchair with them."

West Penn has a fleet of 160 wheelchairs, of which about 15 to 20 disappear each year, said Matt Bukovan, manager of transport services. And because the hospital buys only oversize wheelchairs these days -- a response to the ever-expanding waistline of the average Pittsburgher -- that also has expanded the wheelchair tab. The "big-boy" chairs cost about $400 each, he said.

Bukovan wishes health-care facilities could get together on a reporting system to share information about missing chairs; at West Penn, he has several chairs that he's sure are from hospitals or nursing homes, but lack identification.

He also has a collection of about five or six chairs that people brought to West Penn but forgot to take home with them. They've been sitting around his office so long he can come to only one conclusion: "They came in with an older, outdated wheelchair and went home with a newer one of ours."

Mercy Hospital officials believe that most people don't realize they are stealing hospital property when they take a wheelchair with them. That's why the hospital is toying with the idea of a wheelchair amnesty day.

Short of that, Mercy has attached 6-foot-tall IV polls to the back of wheelchairs to prevent people from loading them into cars, even SUVs. The hospital has also installed a system to better track the escorts who push patients in chairs, a byproduct of which should be better chair monitoring, said Clare Fletcher, who is in charge of the hospital's wheelchair escort service.

Mercy buys about 25 new wheelchairs each year, Fletcher said, and many are replacements for stolen chairs. Eighteen months ago, the hospital took an inventory of its wheelchair fleet. Records indicated that there should have been 190 chairs, but they could find only 92.

If the amnesty idea works at Mercy, other areas of the hospital might employ the concept.

"We replace silverware by the dozens each week," Fletcher said.

Christopher Snowbeck can be reached at csnowbeck@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2625.

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