Patient Safety

March 2nd through the 8th were National Patient Safety Awareness Week – I don’t really know what that means either.  We seem to have a lot of these kinds of days and weeks – my daughters pointed out that March 4 was National Pancake Day – with resultant implications for our family meals.

But back to patient safety and National Patient Safety Awareness Week. In recognition, I thought it would be useful to talk about one organization that is doing so much to raise our awareness of the issues of patient safety.  Which organization is this?  Who seems to be leading the charge, reminding us of the urgent, unfinished agenda around patient safety?

It’s an unlikely one:  The Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services.  Yes, the OIG.  This oversight agency strikes fear into the hearts of bureaucrats: OIG usually goes after improper behavior of federal employees, investigates fraud, and makes sure your tax dollars are being used for the purposes Congress intended.

In 2006, Congress asked the OIG to examine how often “never events” occur and whether the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) adequately denies payments for them.  The OIG took this Congressional request to heart and has, at least in my mind, used it for far greater good:  to begin to look at issues of patient safety far more broadly.

Taken from one lens, the OIG’s approach makes sense:  the federal government spends hundreds of billions of dollars on healthcare for older and disabled Americans and Congress obviously never intended those dollars pay for harmful care.  So, the OIG thinks patient safety is part of its role in oversight, and thank goodness it does.

Because in a world where patient safety gets a lot of discussion but much less action, the OIG keeps the issue on the front burner, reminding us of the human toll of inaction.

Continue reading “What the Work of the Inspector General Tells Us about Patient Safety…”

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There are many stories of patients who suffer when we make errors prescribing antibiotics. 75-year-old Bob Totsch from Coshocton, Ohio, went in for heart bypass surgery with every expectation of a good outcome.

Instead, he developed a surgical site infection caused by MRSA. Given a variety of antibiotics, he developed the deadly diarrheal infection C. difficile, went into septic shock, and died.

A tragic story and, probably, a preventable death.

Today, we’ve published a report about the need to improve antibiotic prescribing in hospitals.  Antibiotic resistance is one of the most urgent health threats facing us today. Antibiotics can save lives.

But when they’re not prescribed correctly, they put patients at risk for preventable allergic reactions, resistant infections, and deadly diarrhea. And they become less likely to work in the future.

About half of hospital patients receive an antibiotic during the course of their stay. But doctors in some hospitals prescribe three times more antibiotics than doctors in other hospitals, even though patients were receiving care in similar areas of each hospital.

Among 26 medical-surgical wards, there were 3-fold differences in prescribing rates of all antibiotics, including antibiotics that place patients at high risk for developing Clostridium difficile infections (CDI).

CDC has estimated that there are about 250,000 CDIs in hospitalized patients each year resulting in 14,000 deaths.

Continue reading “CDC: Together We Can Provide Safer Patient Care”

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I recently had the privilege of becoming a Google Glass Explorer.  Basically, this means I walk around with a funky pair of glass frames and look strange – even for an urban hospital setting.

The Glass has a built in camera, and a small display that you can see with numerous apps ranging from GPS navigation to searching the Web.  As cool as this the technology is – is there any utility in the healthcare setting?

There is the capability of video chat, where a consulting physician can see what I would be seeing in the operating room, and tell me what I may be looking at and what to do next. Pristine Eyesight, based in Austin Texas, is trialing this use of  Glass in University of California, Irvine. Applications for nursing are being developed as well.  Yet will this truly impact quality? I am not sure.

Yet one thing that intrigues me about the Glass is the perspective given when using the video function.  I recorded some small surgical procedures and reviewed the video afterwards. I watched where I placed my hands, how I held the needle driver, where I took my bites, and in general – what I looked at during the case.

I felt like an NFL Coach reviewing game tape.  For the first time in my surgical career, I was able to really see what I did, a perspective that I had never before experienced. This lightweight device with built in eye protection was far more comfortable than any helmet-cam I had used, and the line of sight was right in tune with my visual field. So I began thinking – is there a way this tool can improve outcomes in healthcare?

According to the American College of Surgeons, almost 5,000,000 central venous catheters are placed annually in this country.  Complications including placement failure, arterial puncture and pneumothorax range from 15-33% in numerous studies.  So how is this common procedure taught?

The classic “watch one, do one, teach one” methodology has been modified over the years.  Now, after watching a few lines placed, house staff must perform a certain number of central line placements (usually 5) under the supervision of a senior resident, fellow or attending.  Once the appropriate number is reached, the trainee is “competent” to perform the procedure on his or her own.   Yet are they truly competent? Perhaps the high complication rates result from a flaw in this classic teaching methodology?

Continue reading “Google Glass: A Paradigm Shift in Assessing Procedure Competency?”

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The Cleveland Clinic is by far the best provider of cardiac care in the nation. If you have cancer there is no better place to be than Texas. Johns Hopkins is the greatest hospital in the America.

Why? Because US News and World Report suggests as much in its hospital rankings.

But which doctors at the Cleveland Clinic have the highest success rates in aortic valve repair surgeries? What are the standardized mortality rates due to cancer at University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center? Why exactly is Johns Hopkins the best?

We don’t have answers to these types of questions because in the United States, unlike in the United Kingdom, data is not readily available to healthcare consumers.

The truth is, the rankings with which most patients are familiar provide users with little. Instead, hospitals are evaluated largely by “reputation” while details that would actually be useful to patients seeking to maximize their healthcare experiences are omitted.

Of course, the lack of data available about US healthcare is not US News and World Report’s fault – it is indicative of a much larger issue. Lacking a centralized healthcare system, patients, news sources, and policy makers are left without the information necessary for proper decision-making.

While the United Kingdom’s National Health Service may have its own issues, one benefit of a system overseen by a single governmental entity is proper data gathering and reporting. If you’re a patient in the United Kingdom, you can look up everything from waiting times for both diagnostic procedures and referral-to-treatment all the way to mortality and outcome data by individual physician.

This is juxtaposed to the US healthcare system, where the best sources of data rely on voluntary reporting of information from one private entity to another.

Besides being riddled with issues, including a lack of standardization and oversight, the availability of data to patients becomes limited, manifesting itself in profit-driven endeavors like US News and World Report or initiatives like The Leap Frog Group that are far less well-known and contain too few indicators to be of real use.

The availability of data in the United Kingdom pays dividends. For example, greater understanding of performance has allowed policy makers to consolidate care centers that perform well and close those that hemorrhage money, cutting costs while improving outcomes.  Even at the individual hospital level, the availability of patient data keeps groups on their toes.

Continue reading “Why Transparency Doesn’t Work.”

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Besides the importance of physician happiness when using an EHR, using design principles that maximize user intuition and presentation of relevant information, there is one aspect of health care information systems that should never be overlooked…patient safety.

Scot Silverstein, MD, blogging at Health Care Renewal as InformaticsMD, frequently brings to light issues surrounding health care IT implementations that compromise patient safety.  Reading his posts should be sobering and concerning to both medical professionals and the public alike.  Like I’ve said, health care IT, in my opinion, is still in its infancy despite the number of years computers have been around and the existence of Meaningful Use legislation.

As a practicing physician as well as a software coder, I’ve used a number of EHR’s (and still currently using a well known EHR by my employer of my part time job) to know how some of these appalling user interfaces affect not just workflow and user happiness, but patient safety.

An example of one design element that most physicians may not be able to identify, ironically, is the one that is most harmful when it comes to patient safety. In this well known EHR, you are presented a medication list for a patient. As a physician, you assume that this list is a current medication list and is up to date.  However, the reality is that this EHR system automatically removes a medication from the list when it is determined to be expired even if it should be appearing on the current medication list.

When a physician prescribes a medication from this system, it calculates the duration of usage of the medication based on the instructions, quantity of medication prescribed, and the number of refills. Once the duration exceeds the number of days that has elapsed since the prescription was made, the medication is taken off the current list automatically by the EHR. Now, taken at face value, this sounds like the logical approach to manage a medication list and utilizes the computing power that an EHR will gladly show off as a benefit to physicians.

Unfortunately, the EHR programmers failed to understand that medications are not taken regularly by all patients all the time. In fact, no physician assumes that at all. So why should an EHR make that assumption? Furthermore, there are plenty of treatments that are to be taken only as needed so how can an EHR account for that? Absolutely, impossible.

Continue reading “Why EHR Design Matters”

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Forget for a moment the familiar scenes of action and outraged reaction that are playing out in our long-running national debate over how best to provide access to health care for every American. Instead, ask one simple question: what happens in the doctor’s office or hospital once access is achieved.

I set out to write a book addressing that question almost twenty years ago. I thought myself well qualified: I’d written about health care for a decade for the Chicago Tribune while receiving various awards and other recognition. But it didn’t take long for a painful realization to set in of how naïve I really was.

Digging through hundreds of studies, articles and other first-hand sources stretching back for decades, I was stunned to discover that repeated evidence of unsafe, ineffective, wasteful and downright random care had had no effect whatsoever on how doctors treated patients. Literally none. Moreover, the few professionals who understood this truth couldn’t talk about it in public without endangering their careers or engendering vitriol from peers.

Fortunately, I had no academic or clinical career to imperil. In the conclusion to Demanding Medical Excellence: Doctors and Accountability in the Information Age, I gave vent to anger and indignation. I wrote:

From ulcers to urinary tract infections, tonsils to organ transplants, back pain to breast cancer, asthma to arteriosclerosis, the evidence is irrefutable. Tens of thousands of patients have died or been injured year after year because readily available information was not used ­– and is not being used today – to guide their care. If one counts the lives lost to preventable medical mistakes, the toll reaches the hundreds of thousands.

The only barrier to saving these lives is the willingness of doctors and hospital administrators to change.

Demanding Medical Excellence came out in October, 1997. What progress has been made since then, and where we have fallen short? I address that question in a short article, “The Long Wait for Medical Excellence,” in the October, 2013 issue of Health Affairs. The purpose of this blog entry is to recap some of what’s said there (for you non-subscribers) and to add a few impolite observations that don’t jibe with the rules of a peer-reviewed journal.

Continue reading “Still Demanding Medical Excellence”

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My worst night as a doctor was during my residency.  I was working the pediatric ICU and admitted a young teenager who had tried to kill herself.  Well, she didn’t really try to kill herself; she took a handful of Tylenol (acetaminophen) because some other girls had teased her.

On that night I watched as she went from a frightened girl who carried on a conversation, through agitation and into coma, and finally to death by morning.  We did everything we could to keep her alive, but without a liver there is no chance of survival.

Over ten years later, I was called to the emergency room for a girl who was nauseated and a little confused, with elevated liver tests.  I told the ER doctor to check an acetaminophen level and, sadly, it was elevated.  She too had taken a handful of acetaminophen at an earlier time.  She too was lucid and scared at the start of the evening.  The last I saw of her was on the next day before she was sent to a specialty hospital for a liver transplant.  I got the call later that next day with the bad news: she died.

The saddest thing about both of these kids is that they both thought they were safe.  The handful of pills was a gesture, not meant to harm themselves.  They were like most people; they didn’t know that this medication that is ubiquitous and reportedly safe can be so deadly.  But when they finally learned this, it was too late.  They are both dead.  Suicides?  Technically, but not in reality.

For these children the problem was that symptoms of toxicity may not show up until it is too late.  People often get nausea and vomiting with acute overdose, but if the treatment isn’t initiated within 8-10 hours, the risk of going to liver failure is high.  Once enough time passes, it is rare that the person can be cured without liver transplant.

According to a recent ProPublica investigation, acetaminophen overdose is the #1 cause of liver failure in the US. And  between years of 2001 and 2010, 1567 people in the U.S. were reported to have died by accidentally overdosing.

Continue reading “My Worst Night as a Doctor”

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Is there a patient who goes through a hospitalization who does not have stories to tell about the obstacles, errors and indignities that they endured? I just wonder sometimes.

A family relative was hospitalized this week with a stroke at a hospital a few hours from me –and his experience left me demoralized about medicine.

Joe (not his real name) is an 82 year old grandfather, father, husband and one of a kind. He has a scraggly beard and ponytail. He possesses an artistic spirit, but is punctual to a fault – always early, never late. He has an integrity that is rare these days, which led to a loyal following in business and life. And yes, he is devoted to his family.

On Tuesday, he developed some difficulty with his balance. His wife of over 60 years was worried and brought him to the doctor.  That is when the issues began.

Issue #1. His doctor fit him into her schedule and recognized the possibility of the early signs of stroke and sent him for an MR imaging study of his brain. And she also gave him an aspirin, which he promptly took. The problem is that the MR study revealed a small bleed in his brain – and the last thing you want to give someone bleeding in his brain is an aspirin because it can cause more bleeding.

Issue #2. At one of the nation’s most reputable New England hospitals he was evaluated in the Emergency Department and admitted to the hospital. He is brought upstairs to the stroke ward fairly late and he is exhausted. Even later he is told that he must have a CT scan of the brain.

He is stable. His symptoms are not changed. Nevertheless, someone orders a CT scan. There was no discussion about whether he should have the scan with Joe’s family; they were told he needed to have one. After the scan, his family is told that the scan will not be read until the morning when the radiologist arrives. They push and are told that the technician looks at the scan and would let someone know if it looked abnormal.

They push a little more and ask that they speak to someone who is managing his case. A resident arrives and tells them that there is nothing alarming. The family asks if it will be compared with the scan from earlier in the day  (as that was the reason they took the scan 6 hours later) and are told that scan hasn’t been uploaded yet, even though it was with Joe’s records when he was in the Emergency Department.

They ask the resident to retrieve it from the emergency room and make the comparison. Finally they are told that the Radiologist in the ER reviewed it – but when they ask who reviewed it, they are not told a name.

Continue reading “Why Can’t We Do Better Than This?”

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Let’s say a physician writes a prescription for Colchicine and accidentally orders “10.0 mg,” when he should have ordered “1.0 mg.” That’s a tiny decimal error, a mistake even the best doctor could make. But it can be catastrophic for the patient. The higher dose could cause Colchicine poisoning, similar to arsenic poisoning: burning in the mouth and throat, excruciating abdominal pain. Internal organs would melt away and death would likely occur within 24 to 72 hours.

The ease with which even the best doctors can make gruesome errors is why hospitals set up elaborate systems to check and double check orders before drugs are given to patients. Some hospitals are better at this checking than others. Medication errors happen all the time, an estimated one million each year, contributing to 7,000 deaths. On average there is one medication error every day for every inpatient. Let’s take a closer look at what’s contributing to these preventable errors.

Hospitals Are In The Technological Dark Ages

According to recent research, the best known way for hospitals to protect patients from errors is by adopting technology called computerized physician order entry (CPOE). The physician (or other authorized prescriber) enters orders for a patient on a computer that contains patient information such as key lab values, clinical condition, allergies, etc. The computer checks the safety and appropriateness of the order and sends it electronically to the pharmacy. In the Colchicine example, a good CPOE system would alert the physician to the misplaced decimal in the order, and the best systems would prevent the order from being written in the first place. In my mind, one of the greatest advances of CPOE is that it eliminates the need for pharmacists to decipher physician handwriting. I’ve often wondered how they do that.

The research suggests errors decline by as much as 85 percent when hospitals implement CPOE, yet the pace of adoption in the hospital industry is agonizingly slow. To jump start progress, the federal government used economic stimulus funds starting back in 2009 to incentivize hospital investment in CPOE and electronic medical records (EMRs). That improved the pace of change, but still, most hospitals are in the Dark Ages when compared to other industries like airlines or retail.

My nonprofit, Leapfrog, finds that only about a third of the hospitals that voluntarily report to our survey meet our standard for full implementation of CPOE. Even for that minority of hospitals that adopt CPOE, the system doesn’t always work as advertised. Like all technology, CPOE must be continually tested and modified. That’s not always happening.

Continue reading “The Shocking Truth About Medication Errors”

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Where health care has fallen short in significantly improving quality, our peers in other high-risk industries have thrived. Perhaps we can adapt and learn from their lessons.

For example, health care can learn much from the nuclear power industry, which has markedly improved its safety track record over the last two decades since peer-review programs were implemented. Created in the wake of two nuclear crises, these programs may provide a powerful model for health care organizations.

Following the famous Three Mile Island accident, a partial nuclear meltdown near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in spring 1979, the Institute of Nuclear Power Operators (INPO) was formed by the CEOs of the nuclear companies. That organization established a peer-to-peer assessment program to share best practices, safety hazards, problems and actions that improved safety and operational performance. In the U.S., no nuclear accidents have occurred since then.

A more devastating nuclear incident in Chernobyl, Ukraine in 1986 spurred the creation of the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO), which serves a similar purpose but on an international scale. Since WANO’s inception, no severe nuclear accidents had occurred until the nuclear accident in Fukushima, Japan, caused by a devastating earthquake and tsunami in March 2011.

These programs have succeeded because their purpose and approach is very different from review processes by regulatory agencies. Instead of a punitive process that monitors compliance with minimum standards, peer-to-peer evaluations are thorough, confidential and—importantly—voluntary. They are viewed as mutually beneficial and help advance industry best practices, which are shared widely. The goal is to learn and improve rather than judge and shame. The reviews are done by experts, using validated tools and are ruthlessly transparent  yet confidential.

Peer-to-peer review has not been widely used in health care. A couple notable exceptions are the Northern New England Cardiovascular Study, which used organizational peer-to-peer review to improve the care of cardiac surgery patients, and the National Health Service in the UK, which used it to improve the care of patients with lung disease. While provider-level reviews are more common in health care organizations, they fail to capture the scale needed to achieve system-wide improvements.

At the Armstrong Institute, we have been pilot testing peer-to-peer review and early results are encouraging. We have evaluated specific outcomes, like blood stream infections; specific areas, like the operating room; and whole quality and safety programs.

Continue reading “A Powerful Idea From the Nuclear Industry”

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Contributing Editor

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