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A Powerful Idea From the Nuclear Industry

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.

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