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.
Patients, providers and the public have much to celebrate. Recently, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ Hospital Compare website added central line-associated bloodstream infections in intensive care units to its list of publicly reported quality of care measures for individual hospitals.
Why is this so important? There is universal support for the idea that the U.S. health care system should pay for value rather than volume, for the results we achieve rather than efforts we make. Health care needs outcome measures for the thousands of procedures and diagnoses that patients encounter. Yet we have few such measures and instead must gauge quality by looking to other public data, such as process of care measures (whether patients received therapies shown to improve outcomes) and results of patient surveys rating their hospital experiences.
Unfortunately, we lack a national approach to producing the large number of valid, reliable outcome measures that patients deserve. This is no easy task. Developing these measures is challenging and requires investments that haven’t yet been made.
The addition of bloodstream infections data is a huge step forward. These potentially lethal complications, measured using Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s methods, are among the most accurately measured outcomes. In addition, the science of how to significantly reduce these infections is mature, and hundreds of hospitals of all types and sizes have nearly eliminated them. A program to reduce these infections that started at Johns Hopkins Hospital was spread throughout Michigan, and is now being implemented throughout the U.S., demonstrating substantial reductions.
I recently cared for Ms. K, an elderly black woman who had been sitting in the intensive care unit for more than a month. She was, frail, weak and intermittently delirious, with a hopeful smile. She had a big problem: She had undergone an esophagectomy at an outside hospital and suffered a horrible complication, leading her to be transferred to The Johns Hopkins Hospital. Ms. K had a large hole in her posterior trachea, far too large to directly fix, extending from her vocal cords to where her trachea splits into right and left bronchus. She had a trachea tube so she can breathe, and her esophagus was tied off high in her throat so oral secretions containing bacteria did not fall through the hole and infect her heart and lungs. It is unclear if she will survive, and the costs of her medical care will be in the millions.
Ms K’s complication is tragic—and largely preventable. For the type of surgery she had, there is a strong volume-outcome relationship: Those hospitals that perform more than 12 cases a year have significantly lower mortality. This finding, based on significant research, is made transparent by the Leapfrog Group and several insurers, who use a performance measure that combines the number of cases performed with the mortality rate. Hopkins Hospital performs more than 100 of these procedures a year, and across town, the University of Maryland tallies about 60. The hospital where Ms. K had her surgery did one last year. One. While the exact relationship between volume and outcome is imprecise, it is no wonder she had a complication.
Ms. K is not alone. Of the 45 Maryland hospitals that perform this surgery, 56 percent had fewer than 12 cases last year and 38 percent had fewer than six.
As well intentioned and thoughtful as he is, Sanjay Gupta nonetheless misses the point in his recent New York Times op-ed “More treatment, more mistakes.” The theme of the chief medical correspondent for the Health, Medical & Wellness unit at CNN is:
Certainly many procedures, tests and prescriptions are based on legitimate need. But many are not…. This kind of treatment is a form of defensive medicine, meant less to protect the patient than to protect the doctor or hospital against potential lawsuits.
Herein lies a stunning irony. Defensive medicine is rooted in the goal of avoiding mistakes. But each additional procedure or test, no matter how cautiously performed, injects a fresh possibility of error.
With a quick aside in admiration of Peter Pronovost’s approach to harm reduction and some other process improvements, he then says:
What may be even more important is remembering the limits of our power. More — more procedures, more testing, more treatment — is not always better.
And then, remarkably, he presents M&M conferences as a remedy:
One place where I have seen these issues addressed is in Morbidity and Mortality, or M and M — a weekly gathering of doctors, off limits to the public, which serves in most hospitals as a forum for the discussion of mistakes, complications, deaths and unusual cases. It is a sort of quality-assurance conference where doctors hold one another accountable and learn from one another’s mistakes. They are some of the most candid and indelible meetings I have ever attended.
Recently, I had an enlightening encounter with Horst Schulze, who led Ritz-Carlton Hotels to national awards and has since opened his own hotel chain, Capella. Hortz gave an informal presentation to members of a program that I’m taking part in, the Baldrige Executive Fellowship, and we continued to talk afterwards. Capella has five ultraluxury hotels from New York to Singapore, and all have been recognized as tops in their region. Horst spoke to us of a culture of excellence. He knows—he has built such a culture time and time again. Excellence does not occur by chance. It requires clear goals and a system.
Horst explained that to be great, everyone in the organization needs to know the goals, in order of importance. For Capella, the goals are 1) keep existing customers, 2) add new customers, and 3) optimize the spend of each customer. Every employee not only needs to know the goals, but they need to know the behaviors to achieve them. The Capella employees ensure a warm welcome, compliance with and anticipation of guests’ needs, and a fond farewell.
All employees are required to know service standards. Twenty-five of them. One of them states that you are responsible to identify and immediately correct defects before they affect a guest—for example, getting customers food when the restaurant is closed. Defect prevention is key to service excellence, just as it is to delivering safe health care. Another service standard states that when a guest encounters any difficulty, you are responsible to own it and resolve the problem to the guest’s complete satisfaction.
Capella has standard processes for everything—how to submit defects, how to resolve them. And they trained staff in the goals, the behaviors and the processes. Each hotel, every morning is required to have a huddle at which all staff attend. They review the goals for the company and read one of the behaviors, called service standards. Every day they read a different one. They cycle repeats every 25 days.
If a manager did not do this, Horst said, they would be fired.
Far too many patients are harmed rather than helped from their interactions with the health care system. While reducing this harm has proven to be devilishly difficult, we have found that checklists help. Checklists help to reduce ambiguity about what to do, to prioritize what is most important, and to clarify the behaviors that are most helpful.
The use of checklists helped to reduce central-line associated bloodstream infections at The Johns Hopkins Hospital, in hospitals throughout Michigan, and now across the United States. Clinicians have begun to develop, implement and evaluate checklists for a variety of other diagnoses and procedures.
Patients can also use checklists to defend themselves against the major causes of preventable harm. Here are a few you can use:
Health care-associated infections
- Ask about your hospital’s rates of central-line associated bloodstream infections in the intensive care unit. The best hospitals use the definitions provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and have rates less than one infection per 1,000 catheter days. A rate above three should cause concern.
- Whenever clinicians enter your room, ask if they have washed their hands. Request that visitors also wash their hands often. Washing can be with alcohol gel or soap and water.
- If you have any type of catheter, ask every day if that catheter can be removed.
In the world of patient safety, we’re constantly reinforcing the importance of teamwork and communication, both among clinicians and with patients. That’s because we know that patient harm so often occurs when vital information about a patient’s care is omitted, miscommunicated or ignored.
Yet for all we do to improve how humans work together, clinicians compete against an environment in which there is very little teamwork or communication among the technologies that they need to care for patients. And there’s little that clinicians or hospitals alone can do about it.
Take, for example, the plethora of alarms from cardiac monitors and other devices that compete for clinicians’ attention. Vendors act as if we are in an alarm race, with each making their devices’ beeps more annoying but no clear prioritizing of the most important alarms. A study on one 15-bed Hopkins Hospital unit a few years ago found that a critical alarm sounded every 92 seconds. As a result, nurses waste their precious time chasing an ever-growing number of false alarms—or becoming desensitized to false alarms and ignoring them. Across the country, this has had tragic consequences, as patients have died while their alarms went unheeded. (Read a 2011 Boston Globe series about this issue.)
In most other high-risk industries, such as aviation and nuclear power, technologies are integrated. They talk to each other, and they automatically adjust based on feedback. Indeed, because of systems integration, pilots fly a small amount of a flight, and even in some treacherous situations, they hand over the reins to the autopilot. Although Southwest Airlines or the U.S. Air Force can buy a working plane, you cannot buy a working hospital or ICU. You must put it together yourself.
There are many other examples of how health care is grossly under-engineered. Consider these:
I was reminded again recently of how important it is to sometimes just sit back and listen to what our patients have to say. Every month, as part of our hospital-wide patient safety efforts, I meet with staff and interview patients, seeking to learn how we can improve the care we provide to them.
A young patient shared two stories with me, one telling me how we get it right and one reminding me how we sometimes get it wrong, even without realizing it. She was nervously awaiting a procedure in Interventional Radiology when a nurse sensed her anxiety and called in a child life specialist. The specialists came and significantly helped relieve the patient’s suffering. She listened to the patient, offered a comforting touch, and provided her age-appropriate reading material and Sudoku puzzles, a brilliant though infrequently used intervention. If anything could take your mind off of your illness, it is Sudoku.
What was amazing was that after all the patient had been through―weeks in the hospital, countless procedures, scores of clinicians―what she remembered was the nurse’s act of kindness by caring enough to call the specialist. The patient reminded me that though we can cure disease sometimes, we can relieve suffering always, often with nothing more than a kind word, a gentle touch or a warm smile.
As I listened, the patient, along with her mother, went on to tell me more. They told me how the patient has complex allergies and that her mom knew her disease better than any clinician. They had lived with the disease for a decade. Yet at times, neither the patient’s mother nor the patient felt they were being heard by the doctors. The mom expressed frustration that clinicians often dismissed her concerns and discredited her knowledge.