SF General hails discovery of latest missing patient as new procedures begin to be implemented 

click to enlarge San Francisco General Hospital
  • Mike Koozmin/2013 S.F. examiner file photo
  • San Francisco General Hospital is implementing new safety measures to prevent patients from wandering off.
On Thursday, another patient went missing from San Francisco General Hospital. But this time, she was found alive.

The at-risk female patient was located nearly 24 hours later. The hospital credited new procedures put in place recently to prevent such incidents from taking place in the wake of another missing patient who was found dead weeks after disappearing from the Mission district facility.

Only a week has passed since federal investigators gave the thumbs-up to S.F. General’s new safety measures, which came in response to the roughly two-week-long disappearance of Lynne Spalding. She was eventually found dead in a seldom-used stairwell.

The latest missing patient — whom police identified as 34-year-old Valerie Gates — was categorized as at-risk before she left hospital grounds about 1 p.m. Thursday because she was in need of post-operation medications. She was found about 10 a.m. Friday somewhere in the Mission, then brought back to the hospital for treatment.

The hospital’s search was finally successful, but one of the key tools put into place to prevent at-risk patients from going missing, namely a tracking system, has yet to be put into place.

“The hospital has purchased a tracking system that we plan to begin using next month for patients who meet the criteria,” said a Jan. 24 news release about new procedures.

Hospital officials, meanwhile, are calling the missing patient’s eventual discovery and return a sign that their new protocols are working.

“It’s unfortunate that she chose to leave, but patients do that and will still do that sometimes,” hospital spokeswoman Rachael Kagan said. “We have put in place a really strong response when that happens, and that [the response] happened exactly how it was supposed to.”

The Sheriff’s Department, which has taken the brunt of the blame in the Spalding case because its security staff at the hospital failed to properly search for Spalding after hospital staff wrongly identified her ethnicity, released a short statement Friday:

“Working together, a thorough search was conducted, family was notified and a new ‘code green’ policy was implemented for a campus-wide search. When the patient was not located, a missing persons report was filed with the San Francisco Police Department. Today, joint efforts between staff from San Francisco General Hospital and the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department resulted in deputy sheriffs locating and returning the missing patient to the hospital.”

The incident is the first publicized case of a patient disappearance since the hospital announced last week that it had fixed the issues that contributed to Spalding’s disappearance and death.

“… Federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services … has verified our compliance with our plan of correction … to fix the problems that contributed to the tragic death of patient Lynne Spalding Ford, and that we have made significant progress toward a safer and more secure hospital. Her family is in the forefront of our minds as we continue to work to improve safety and security for all our patients,” said the hospital’s news release.

The new procedures include a bevy of training, daily stairwell searches, new alarms on exit doors, regularly scheduled meetings between security and hospital staff, and new procedures when patients go AWOL. They also include new observation rules around at-risk patients for nurses and doctors, and a step-by-step script that hospital staff are to undergo if a patient leaves the hospital, which includes a campuswide alarm that prompts hospital personnel to aid in the search.

About The Author

Jonah Owen Lamb

Jonah Owen Lamb

Born and raised on a houseboat in Sausalito, Lamb has written for newspapers in New York City, Utah and the San Joaquin Valley. He was most recently an editor at the San Luis Obispo Tribune for nearly three years. He has written for The S.F. Examiner since 2013 and covers criminal justice and planning.
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