By MICHAEL MILLENSON
Super Bowl Week ended with the San Francisco 49ers and 161 U.S. hospitals having something in common.
Both were publicly penalized, both lost money as a result and both passionately believed the process was unfair. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to decide whether their objections were sensible or sour grapes and, in the case of hospitals, the real-life consequences are not a game.
The penalty that pained the 49ers occurred shortly before halftime of Super Bowl LIV, when offensive pass interference was called on tight end George Kittle. The call negated a big gain that might have enabled the 49ers to take the lead.
Replays showed that the referees – nicknamed “zebras” for their black-and-white striped shirts – were technically correct in their decision. Nonetheless, controversy erupted over whether given other possible penalties called or overlooked, this one deserved a yellow flag.
Hospitals call that kind of context “risk adjustment.” A few days before the Super Bowl, the Medicare program blew the whistle on a group of hospitals having high rates of infection and other patient injuries. The hospitals who are outliers in what are blandly labeled “hospital-acquired conditions” (HACs) suffer a cut of one percent in their Medicare payments over next fiscal year.
Adverse events – when bad things happen to patients because of what we as medical professionals do – are a leading cause of suffering and death in the U.S. and globally. Indeed, as I have written before, patient safety is a major issue in American healthcare, and one that has gotten far too little attention. Tens of thousands of Americans die needlessly because of preventable infections, medication errors, surgical mishaps, and so forth. As I wrote previously, according to Office of Inspector General (OIG), when an older American walks into a hospital, he or she has about a 1 in 4 chance of suffering some sort of injury during their stay. Many of these are debilitating, life-threatening, or even fatal. Things are not much better for younger Americans.
Given the magnitude of the problem, many of us have decried the surprising lack of attention and focus on this issue from policymakers. Well, things are changing – and while some of that change is good, some of it worries me. Congress, as part of the Affordable Care Act, required Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to penalize hospitals that had high rates of “HACs” – Hospital Acquired Conditions. CMS has done the best it can, putting together a combination of infections (as identified through clinical surveillance and reported to the CDC) and other complications (as identified through the Patient Safety Indicators, or PSIs). PSIs are useful – they use algorithms to identify complications coded in the billing data that hospitals send to CMS. However, there are three potential problems with PSIs: hospitals vary in how hard they look for complications, they vary in how diligently they code complications, and finally, although PSIs are risk-adjusted, their risk-adjustment is not very good — and sicker patients generally have more complications.
So, HACs are imperfect – but the bottom line is, every metric is imperfect. Are HACs particularly imperfect? Are the problems with HACs worse than with other measures? I think we have some reason to be concerned.
Quality improvement (QI) and patient safety initiatives are created with the laudable goal of saving lives and reducing “preventable harms” to patients.
As the number of QI interventions continues to rise, and as hospitals become increasingly subject to financial pressures and penalties for hospital-acquired conditions (HACs), we believe it is important to consider the impact of the pressure to improve everything at once on hospitals and their staff.
We argue that a strategy that capitalizes on “small wins” is most effective. This approach allows for the creation of steady momentum by first convincing workers they can improve, and then picking some easily obtainable objectives to provide evidence of improvement.
National Quality Improvement Initiatives
Our qualitative team is participating in two large ongoing national quality improvement initiatives, funded by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ). Each initiative targets a single HAC and its reduction in participating hospitals.
We have visited hospital sites across six states in order to understand why QI initiatives achieve their goals in some settings but not others.
To date, we have conducted over 150 interviews with hospital workers ranging from frontline staff in operating rooms and intensive care units to hospital administrators and executive leadership. In interviews for this ethnographic research, one of our interviewees warned us about unrealistic expectations for change: “You cannot go from imperfect to perfect. It’s a slow process.”
While there is much to learn about how to achieve sustainable QI in the environment of patient care, one thing is certain from the growing wisdom of ethnographic studies of QI: buy-in from frontline providers is essential for creating meaningful change.
Frontline providers often bristle at expectations from those they believe have little understanding of the demands of their daily work.