Veterans Affairs Department hospitals need to take steps to ensure that high-risk patients don't leave without the knowledge and approval of hospital staff, according to a new report by the General Accounting Office.
The study was requested by Congress in 1992 after two patients were found dead on the grounds of the VA hospital in Salem, Va.
The study found that, in the period from Oct. 1, 1990, to Sept. 30, 1992, there were 6,996 searches for missing patients conducted by VA facility personnel. Of those searches, 6,918, or 98%, resulted in finding patients unharmed. Of the remaining 78 patients, 34 were found dead, 19 were injured and, as of June 1, 1993, 25 remained unaccounted for.
The GAO concluded that while "it is unreasonable to expect that VA will be able to completely stop all psychiatric and other high-risk patients from leaving|.|.|.|(it) can and should take steps to reduce the number of such incidents."
The GAO recommended that VA staff place greater emphasis on monitoring high-risk patients and that other medical centers be studied to determine what works at those facilities.
In response to the study, VA spokesmen said they generally agreed with the GAO recommendations, but they added that the GAO's findings "significantly overstate" the problem.-Eric Weissenstein