Electronic supervision helps deter hospital crime

by Jesse Weisbeck

With almost 30 percent of all Twin Cities patient admissions and more than 4,000 employees, potential security hazards at Fairview-University Medical Center are impossible to eliminate.
But electronic security and 24-hour guard patrols keep major incidents to a minimum.
“It’s due to a lot of supervision by security officers,” said Linda Fite, director of security, safety and parking for Fairview. “If you’re going to commit a crime, it probably won’t be in a hospital.”
Three or four officers are on duty at any given time at both the University and Riverside sites, Fite said.
“They are more of a visual deterrent than anything,” said University Police Sgt. Joe May. Security officers call police when an incident occurs; they never get involved, he said.
The two most difficult areas to patrol are mental wards and children’s areas. These areas are the most common sites where violent crime occurs in hospitals, said Fairview’s Co-Chief of Staff Joseph Rigatuso. Such units are locked from the rest of the hospital. But patients inside the locked wards can still maintain contact with each other.
“In psych and chemical dependency wards you have what we would call a high-risk population,” Rigatuso said.
He explained that high risk people — those with a criminal or violent history — commit most of the crimes in hospitals. Rigatuso said this is why most violent hospital crime happens in psychiatric units.
Last month, a rape occurred in Fairview’s chemical dependency unit.
However, Fairview officials said the incident was an isolated case. Jean Tracy, a spokesperson for Fairview said nothing like it has occurred in the past.
However, such incidents aren’t unheard of at hospitals throughout the state.
A similar incident occurred in 1993 at Abbott-Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis. An HIV-positive male patient raped a 38-year-old woman in Abbott’s now-defunct mental health unit.
But Rigatuso said tight security measures, such as video monitoring and electric card access, combine to keep incidents to a minimum.
When it comes to patient safety, Fairview officials said security is maintained throughout several departments using electronic measures.
This is a must because of a 1996 Minnesota statute requiring hospitals to guarantee patients’ safety and their right to be free from intentional and non-therapeutic pain or injury.
The victim in the Abbott-Northwestern rape sued Allina Health Systems, their parent company, on grounds that the hospital violated the statute.
The previous criminal behavior by Douglas W. Young, the alleged perpetrator of last month’s rape, was similar to that of the man charged in the Allina suit.
Young had just gotten out of a Stillwater, Minn., workhouse for previous assault charges when he was admitted to Fairview’s chemical dependency unit. Young, 40, allegedly lured the 20-year-old woman into his room and forced her to have intercourse.
A jury agreed with the victim in the Allina case and awarded her $420,000 because the company failed to protect her from a fellow patient, who had a psychotic history.
For those reasons, Fairview’s security is designed to protect patients from everyone including unwanted visitors and even hospital personnel.
“The only thing close to communism is practicing medicine,” Rigatuso said. “They monitor every aspect of your life,” he said. “We make sure people who practice medicine are continually evaluated.”
Rigatuso said staff are selected under stringent requirements called “credentialing.”
Such strict monitoring is in part done through a national database which tracks every development, large or small, in the career of a doctor.
To combat the possibility of dangerous visitors harming young patients, Rigatuso said, doctors must communicate with parents and guardians to identify any potential factors that might put the child’s health at risk.
Also, doctors identify any people who might try to harm the child and disallow those persons from visiting the patient.
“We have different ways of hiding people; it’s not uncommon to use assumed names,” Rigatuso said.
He also explained how locked areas, such as psychiatric wards and chemical dependency units, require electronic cards to access them.
Every staff member must use the cards, he said. Even visitors must wear electronic bracelets that can be monitored. In addition, security cameras watch every entrance and exit in locked units, such as mental wards.
But Rigatuso was realistic about the limitations of the security system.
“Don’t get me wrong,” he said. “There are ways you can fool the system; there’s no real security that’s 100 percent.”
One such incident occurred last week when the mother of a 7-month-old infant allegedly forced her son’s face into blankets while visiting the child at Fairview’s campus hospital. The incident went unnoticed until the alleged abuse had ended and a passerby noticed the woman standing over the child.
But Fite said violent crime is rare. When they do occur she said they work closely with police and conduct their own investigations as well.