This year marks the 15th anniversary of the Institute of Medicine (IOM)’s To Err is Humanreport, which famously declared that from 44,000 to 98,000 Americans died each year from preventable mistakes in hospitals and another one million were injured. That blunt conclusion from a prestigious medical organization shocked the public and marked the arrival of patient safety as a durable and important public policy issue.
Alas, when it comes to providing the exact date of this medical mistakes milestone, the IOM itself is confused and, in a painful piece of irony, sometimes just plain wrong. That’s unfortunate, because the date of the report’s release is an important part of the story of its continued influence.
There’s no question among those of us who’d long been involved in patient safety that the report’s immediate and powerful impact took health policy insiders by surprise.
The data the IOM relied upon, after all, came from studies that appeared years before and then vanished into the background noise of the Hundred Year War over universal health insurance. This time, however, old evidence was carefully rebottled in bright, compelling new soundbites.Continue reading…
There’s an infection that afflicts thousands of Americans yearly, killing an estimated one in five of those who contract it, and costs tens of thousands of dollars per person to treat. Though there’s a proven way to dramatically reduce or even eliminate it, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) inexplicably seems in no hurry to do so.
Unlike Ebola, this infection isn’t transmitted from person to person, with the health care system desperately racing to keep up. Instead, it’s caused by the health care system when clinicians don’t follow established anti-infection protocols – very much like what happened when Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital encountered its first Ebola patient. That hospital’s failure flashes a warning sign to all of us.
The culprit in this case is called CLABSI, short for “central-line associated bloodstream infection.” A central line is a catheter placed into a patient’s torso to make it easier to infuse critical medications or draw blood. Because the lines are inserted deep into patients already weakened by illness, an infection can be catastrophic.
CLABSIs are deadlier than typhoid fever or malaria. Last year alone they affected more than 10,000 adults, according to hospital reports to the CDC, and nearly 1,700 children, according to an analysis of hospital discharge records. The infections also cost an average of nearly $46,000 per patient to treat, adding up to billions of dollars yearly.
At one time, CLABSIs were thought to be largely unavoidable. But in 2001, Dr. Peter Pronovost, a critical care medicine specialist at Johns Hopkins, simplified existing guidelines into an easy five-step checklist with items like “wash hands” and “clean patient’s skin with an antibacterial agent.” Hopkins’ CLABSI rate plunged.
When I heard that Jessie Gruman had died, that her powerful voice on behalf of patients had been stilled and gone silent years too soon, I thought of Phillipe Petite, the high-wire artist who famously tread a cable strung between the two World Trade Center buildings back in 1974.
Jessie’s balancing act did not take place on so visible a stage, but her death-defying dance equally amazed those who knew, worked with, respected and loved her.
On the one side, she was persistently pulled down by cancer. There was Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1973 when she was just 20, setting the stage for repercussions of treatment that would dog her ever after: cervical cancer eight years later; colon cancer in 2004; and a diagnosis of stomach cancer in 2011 that returned after a too-brief hiatus. There was also pericarditis, a dangerous heart condition.
Counterbalancing that burden was the uplift of a woman whose “bouts” with cancer shaped, but never defined her. She was a social psychologist who was an early part of work on the chronic care model; the founder of a policy and research center dedicated to empowering patients in health care and in health; a prolific writer and author of a landmark book on what to do with a diagnosis of serious disease; and for many, a personal inspiration.
On the morning of July 14, Jessie finally fell off the tightrope, as we all must eventually do, dying at home. She was 60 years old.
You can’t really understand the outpouring of affection, appreciation and aching loss Jessie inspired just by browsing her impressive bio. She was sharp and funny, with wry asides directed at any pretension exhibited by allies or adversaries alike.
However, Jessie did far more than dish and dis. She was a superlative builder; of an organization, yes, but more importantly, of a body of work that prompted government policymakers and uncounted health care organizations to pay greater attention to the unmet needs of patients. She also reached out directly to fellow patients to help. In all these activities, she married intellectual rigor and careful attention to evidence – techie trendiness, for example, did not impress her – with emotional honesty. Jessie spoke what often goes unspoken, candidly acknowledging how horribly scary and alone it feels to be seriously ill.
Every time I have received bad health news, I have felt like a healthy person who has been accidentally drop-kicked into a foreign country: I don’t know the language, the culture is unfamiliar, I have no idea what is expected of me, I have no map and I desperately want to find my way home.
Jessie told one interviewer: “I want people to know how to take care of themselves and pay attention to the urgency of their situation even when their heart is broken.” Later, she repeated that theme in an article for Health Affairs that called for policies to support patients and their families in their time of distress.Continue reading…