Medical errors

A little more than 13 years ago, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) released its seminal report on patient safety, To Err is Human.

You can say that again. We humans sure do err.  It seems to be in our very nature.  We err individually and in groups — with or without technology.  We also do some incredible things together.  Like flying jets across continents and building vast networks of communication and learning — and like devising and delivering nothing- short-of-miraculous health care that can embrace the ill and fragile among us, cure them, and send them back to their loved ones.  Those same amazing, complex accomplishments, though, are at their core, human endeavors.  As such, they are inherently vulnerable to our errors and mistakes.  As we know, in high-stakes fields, like aviation and health care, those mistakes can compound into catastrophically horrible results.

The IOM report highlighted how the human error known in health care adds up to some mindboggling numbers of injured and dead patients—obviously a monstrous result that nobody intends.

The IOM safety report also didn’t just sound the alarm; it recommended a number of sensible things the nation should do to help manage human error. It included things like urging leaders to foster a national focus on patient safety, develop a public mandatory reporting system for medical errors, encourage complementary voluntary reporting systems, raise performance expectations and standards, and, importantly, promote a culture of safety in the health care workforce.

How are we doing with those sensible recommendations? Apparently to delay is human too.

Continue reading “Doctor, I’m Not Comfortable with That Order”

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I’ve been getting emails about the NY Times piece and my quotation that the penalties for readmissions are “crazy”.  Its worth thinking about why the ACA gets hospital penalties on readmissions wrong, what we might do to fix it – and where our priorities should be.

A year ago, on a Saturday morning, I saw Mr. “Johnson” who was in the hospital with a pneumonia.  He was still breathing hard but tried to convince me that he was “better” and ready to go home.  I looked at his oxygenation level, which was borderline, and suggested he needed another couple of days in the hospital.  He looked crestfallen.  After a little prodding, he told me why he was anxious to go home:  his son, who had been serving in the Army in Afghanistan, was visiting for the weekend.  He hadn’t seen his son in a year and probably wouldn’t again for another year.  Mr. Johnson wanted to spend the weekend with his kid.

I remember sitting at his bedside, worrying that if we sent him home, there was a good chance he would need to come back.  Despite my worries, I knew I needed to do what was right by him.  I made clear that although he was not ready to go home, I was willing to send him home if we could make a deal.  He would have to call me multiple times over the weekend and be seen by someone on Monday.  Because it was Saturday, it was hard to arrange all the services he needed, but I got him a tank of oxygen to go home with, changed his antibiotics so he could be on an oral regimen (as opposed to IV) and arranged a Monday morning follow-up.  I also gave him my cell number and told him to call me regularly.

Continue reading “Is the Readmissions Penalty Off Base?”

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Dr. Brian Goldman is right.

We expect a level of perfection from our doctors, nurses, surgeons and care providers that we do not demand of our heroes, our friends, our families or ourselves. We demand this level of perfection because the stakes in medicine are the highest of any field — outcomes of medical decisions hold our very lives in the balance.

It is precisely this inconsistent recognition of the human condition that has created our broken health care system. The all-consuming fear of losing loved ones makes us believe that the fragile human condition does not apply to those with the knowledge to save us. A deep understanding of that same fragility forces us to trust our doctors — to believe that they can fix us when all else in the world has failed us.

I am always surprised when people say someone is a good doctor. To me, that phrase just means that they visited a doctor and were made well. It is uncomfortable and unsettling — even terrifying — to admit that our doctors are merely human — that they, like us, are fallible and prone to bias.

They too must learn empirically, learning through experience and moving forward to become better at what they do. A well-trained, experienced physician can, by instinct, identify problems that younger ones can’t catch — even with the newest methods and latest technologies. And it is this combination of instinct and expertise that holds the key to providing better care.

We must acknowledge that our health care system is composed of people — it doesn’t just take care of people. Those people — our cardiologists, nurse practitioners, X-ray technicians, and surgeons — work better when they work together.

Working together doesn’t just mean being polite in the halls and handing over scalpels. It means supporting one another, communicating honestly about difficulties, sharing breakthroughs to adopt better practices, and truly dedicating ourselves to a culture of medicine that follows the same advice it dispenses.

Continue reading “The Good Doctor”

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Currently, India spends about $20 per person per year on healthcare and spending more once seemed like a peripheral concern, taking a back seat to basics like food and sanitation.  However, in the past decade, as the Indian economy has grown and wealth followed, Indians are increasingly demanding access to “high quality” healthcare.  But what does “high quality” mean for a country where a large proportion of the population still goes hungry?  Where access to sanitation is so spotty that the Supreme Court recently had to decree that every school should have a toilet?  What is “high quality” in a setting where so many basics have not been met?

It turns out that “high quality” may mean quite a lot, especially for the poor.  A few weeks ago I spent time in Delhi, meeting with the leadership of the Indian health ministry.  I talked to directors of new public medical schools and hospitals opening up around the country and I met with clinicians and healthcare administrators at both private and public hospitals.  An agenda focused on quality rang true with them in a way that surprised me.

The broad consensus among global health policy experts is that countries like India should focus on improving “access” to healthcare while high income countries can afford to focus on the “quality” of that care.  The argument goes that when the population doesn’t have access to basic healthcare, you don’t have the luxury to focus on quality.  This distinction between access and quality never made sense to me.  When I was a kid in Madhubani, a small town in in the poor state of Bihar, I remember the widespread impressions of our community hospital.  It was a state-run institution that my uncle, a physician, once described as a place where “you dare not go, because no one comes out alive”.

Continue reading “Can Quality Be on India’s Health Care Agenda? Should it Be?”

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This case is prompting a lot of comments, some of them taking issue with the concept of systemic failures and instead asserting that the young nurse was clearly incompetent, in that her error was inexplicable.  So, let’s turn from a clinic in Brazil to a recent case in a hospital in the US, cited in this article on AHRQ’s Web M&M.  A summary:

The order was written correctly in the electronic medical record (EMR) for phenytoin, 800 mg IV. The drug-dispensing machines stocked phenytoin in 250 mg/1 mL vials. The correct dose therefore would require 4 vials and be equal to 3.2 mL to be added to a small IV bag. The nurse misread the order as 8000 mg (8 g) and proceeded to administer that dose to the patient, which was a 10-fold overdose and 2 to 3 times the lethal dose. The patient died several minutes after the infusion.

This nurse had to work hard to make the error:

An audit of the pharmacy system revealed that the nurse had taken 32 vials out of 3 different pharmacy dispensing machines to accumulate 8 g of IV phenytoin. Moreover, the nurse had to use two IV bags and a piggyback line to give that large a dose.

Continue reading “Is the Nurse Incompetent?”

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Medical malpractice in America remains a thorny and contentious issue, made no less so by its virtual exclusion from the Affordable Care Act (ACA, or Obamacare) governing healthcare reform in America.

Which is why I was glad to see the former head of President Obama’s Office of Management and Budget, Peter Orszag, now with the liberal Center for American Progress,  cite it as his second top priority for gaining control of our out-sized medical spending – an implicit criticism of its omission from Obamacare.

Although  speaking in the context of criticizing Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) plan to offer vouchers so Medicare enrollees could purchase private health insurance, his comments about the need to address malpractice reform are a departure from the liberal talking points on Obamacare. Here’s what he had to say…

Former Obama Budget Head Challenges Paul Ryan To Demonstrate How His Budget Would Lower Health Costs

“Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) proposals to control health care spending by slashing the federal government’s contribution to Medicare and Medicaid and shifting that spending on to future retirees or the states, has dominated Washington’s conversation about entitlement reform. But…a group of health care economists and former Obama administration officials laid out an alternative approach that could achieve health savings by encouraging providers to deliver care more efficiently…

“‘Mr. Ryan has had too much running room to go out with proposals that neither will reduce overall health care costs nor will help individual beneficiaries simply because there has not been enough of an alternative put forward by those who believe that we really need to focus on the incentives and information for providers…If I had to pick out two or three things to do immediately, I would pick the accelerated (trend) towards bundled payments and non fee-for-service payment…

Continue reading “Medical Malpractice – What Obamacare Misses”

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On a snowy night in February 2001, Josie King, an adorable 18-month-old girl who looked hauntingly like my daughter, was taken off of life support and died in her mother’s arms at Johns Hopkins. Josie died from a cascade of errors that started with a central line-associated bloodstream infection, a type of infection that kills nearly as many people as breast cancer or prostate cancer.

Shortly after her death, her mother, Sorrel, asked if Josie would be less likely to die now. She wanted to know whether care was safer. We would not give her an answer; she deserves one. At the time, our rates of infections, like most of the country’s, were sky high. I was one of the doctors putting in these catheters and harming patients. No clinician wants to harm patients, but we were.

So we set out to change this. We developed a program that included a checklist of best practices, an intervention called CUSP [the Comprehensive Unit-based Safety Program] to help change culture and engage frontline clinicians, and performance measures so we could be accountable for results. It worked. We virtually eliminated these infections.

Then in 2003 through 2005, with funding from AHRQ, we partnered with the Michigan Health & Hospital Association. Within six months in over 100 ICUs, these infections were reduced by 66 percent. Over 65 percent of ICUs went one year without an infection; 25 percent went two years. The results were sustained, and the program saved lives and money, all from a $500,000 investment by AHRQ for two years.

Continue reading “Health Care’s Man on the Moon Moment?”

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In our rush to establish a national electronic medical record (EMR) system as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, powerful silos of independent EMR systems have sprung up nationwide.

While most systems are being developed responsibly, like the Wild, Wild West, many have been developed without an objective eye toward quality and the potential  harm they may be causing our patients.

As most readers of this blog are aware, since 2005 the medical device industry in which I work has had widely publicized instances of patient deaths splashed all over the New York Times and other mainstream media outlets from defibrillator malfunctions that resulted in a just a few patient deaths.

The backlash in response to these deaths was significant: device registries were developed, software improvements to devices created, and billions of dollars in legal fees and damages paid to patients and their families on the path to improvement.  In addition, we also learned about the limits of corporate responsibility for these deaths thanks to legal precedent established by the Reigel vs. Medtronic case.

Continue reading “Why the Electronic Medical Record Needs to be Viewed as a Medical Device”

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There was a night when I was in training that all the decisions, disasters and chaos, which are the practice of medicine, caught up to me.  In those dark hours, I felt practically despondent.  What I had seen left me in tears and overwhelmed by the tasks in front of me.

At that moment a wise attending physician took a moment to sit with me.  Rather than tell me how wonderful a doctor I might someday become or brush away my errors, he validated my feelings.  He said the best doctors cared, worked hard and sacrificed. However, that the basic driving force is fear and guilt.  Fear for the mistakes you might make. Guilt for the mistakes you already had.  How I handled those feelings would determine how good a doctor I became.

I have reflected on those words over the years and tried to use that sage advice to learn and grow.  Focused properly, guilt gives one the incentive to re-evaluate patient care that has not been ideal.  It drives the study and the dissection of past decisions.  Nonetheless, excessive guilt can cause a doctor to avoid completely certain types of cases and refuse even the discussion of those medical issues.

Fear of error drives compulsive and exact care.  It helps doctors study and constantly improve.   Taken too far it can result in over testing, avoidance and over treatment.  The art of medicine requires the practitioner to open his heart to criticism and be strong enough to build from failure.

Some years ago, I saw a patient who had leukemia.  I concluded that the patient’s low blood count was because of this blood cancer.  This was correct.   I missed that in addition to the leukemia she was bleeding from a stomach ulcer.  By the time another doctor spotted the ulcer, the patient was sicker than she might have been, had I made that diagnosis earlier.

Continue reading “Moments of Failure”

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