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.
I welcome Leah Binder’s earlier post on this blog, written in response to my blog post in The New York Times. To be thus acknowledged is an honor.
As an economist, I am not trained to respond to Ms. Binder’s deep insights into my psyche, dubious though it may be. Nor, alas, can I delve into hers, fascinating though that might be. Let me therefore concentrate instead just on substance.
First of all, I do not recall calling employers “stupid,” nor did I question their IQ. I do confess to having once called employee benefits managers, when addressing them at some of their usually mournful meetings, “kind-hearted social workers dressed to look like tough Republicans.” At that meeting I contrasted how carefully their company’s tough-minded VP for Procurement, Murgatroid de B. Coverly III, Princeton ’74, purchased paper clips for the company with the much more mellow approach taken by their V.P. of Human Resources to purchase health care for their company’s employees.
Benefit managers – I hate to call them BMs — really are the nicest folks. They care deeply about their employees’ well being (until, of course, the latter lose their job with the company). They worry incessantly about their company’s ever rising outlays for health insurance. And, after a cocktail or two, they regularly lament how rarely they get the attention of top management and of the board of directors – the very folks I once told to go look into a mirror in their search for the culprit behind rising health care costs.
No, when I say “employers” I really mean top management and boards of directors who make the rules. And I did not even call those mighty ones stupid, but merely “passive payers” as did, by the way, David Dranove on this blog in his critical response to my New York Times piece. Why these usually tough and smart people have behaved so passively in buying health care for themselves and their employees remains a puzzle at the level of economic theory.
Q: Have hospitals improved since the first Hospital Safety Score last year?
A: We saw an incremental improvement in the scores, though it is not as rapid or as dramatic as we would like. For the Spring 2013 Hospital Safety Score, there were more than 2,500 general hospitals scored, including 780 “As,” 638 “Bs,” 932 “Cs,” 148 “Ds” and 16 “Fs.” Those hospitals that lowered their grades demonstrate how patient safety can be seriously impacted when hospitals don’t stay vigilant. Safety is a 24/7, 365-day effort with all hands on deck; there is no time for excuses when it comes to preventing errors, injuries and harm. On the other hand, hospitals that showed improvement should be celebrating. They have clearly accepted the challenge to improve and have proven that any institution can make significant advances in patient safety over a short period of time. Now, they need to work on sustaining that achievement into the future.
Q: How is the Hospital Safety Score different from other hospital ratings?
A: The Hospital Safety Score is the standard assessment of how well hospitals perform at protecting patients from accidents, errors and injuries. The Score is 100-percent transparent, and the only hospital safety assessment to be (favorably) peer-reviewed in the Journal of Patient Safety. Unlike any other rating, you can see all the data that was applied to every scored hospital, as well as the entire methodology. Also unlike many other ratings, the Hospital Safety Score highlights both the best and poorest performers on safety in an effort to educate consumers on the hospitals they rely on for care.
The Hospital Safety Score assesses hospitals strictly on patient safety. Each “A,” “B,” “C,” “D,” or “F” score assigned to a hospital comes from expert analysis of infections, injuries, and medical and medication errors that frequently cause harm or death during a hospital stay.
Last April, the ABIM Foundation, with Consumer Reports and other partners, drew national attention to overuse of ineffective and harmful practices across the health care system with their Choosing Wisely campaign. As part of the campaign, professional medical societies identified practices within their own specialties that patients should avoid or question carefully. Today, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) and the American Association of Family Physicians (AAFP) have joined the campaign, drawing national attention to the overuse and misuse of induction of labor. ACOG and AAFP are telling women and their maternity care providers:
1. Don’t schedule elective, non-medically indicated inductions of labor or cesarean deliveries before 39 weeks 0 days gestational age.
2. Don’t schedule elective, non-medically indicated inductions of labor between 39 weeks 0 days and 41 weeks 0 days unless the cervix is deemed favorable.
(“Favorable” means the cervix is already thinned out and beginning to dilate, and the baby is settling into the pelvis. Another word for this is “ripe,” and doctors and midwives use a tool called the Bishop Score to give an objective measurement of ripeness. Although ACOG and AAFP do not define “favorable,” studies show cesarean risk is elevated with a Bishop Score of 8 or lower in a woman having her first birth and 6 or lower in women who have already given birth vaginally.)
Much work has already been done to spread the first message. Although ACOG has long advised against early elective deliveries, the practice has persisted. But a confluence of recent reforms has made it increasingly difficult for providers to perform elective deliveries before 39 weeks. Quality collaboratives have supported hospitals to implement “hard stops” that prevent these deliveries. Payers have used carrots and sticks to disincentivize them. CMS has funded a national public awareness campaign to reduce consumer demand.
A report published by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) on high-value health care attracted attention when it was issued last June. Authored by a group of eleven leading hospital executives, A CEO Checklist for High-Value Health Care describes programs at various hospitals that resulted in quality improvements and lowered costs. The report has a section called “Yield,” quantifying the extent of these improvements. These programs sound notable, and in fact I know some of the executives and hospitals involved, and would vouch that many significantly improved patient care.
But the report is less impressive when it tackles the cost side of the value equation, especially when it names cost control outcomes like: “days cash on hand increased from 180 to 202,” and “multiple years of 4-5 percent [hospital] margin.” Clearly, the hospitals improved their own bottom lines, but by how much did patient bills decrease? The hospital executives don’t account for that in the “yield.”
It seems this report defines “high-value” to mean highly valuable to hospital CEOs. Strikingly, though, the authors do not find it necessary to explicitly say so anywhere within the report. Perhaps they simply assume that a high-value checklist for hospital CEOs is automatically high-value to CEOs in other industries that are paying for services from hospitals. No offense to these well-meaning and highly accomplished hospital executives, but that is not always the case. Purchasers don’t see high-value health care in hospital cash flow or profit margins. They see value when they get the best service at the best price.
After years of breaking down, my sedan recently died. Finding myself in the market for a new car, I did what most Americans would do – went to the web. Reading reviews and checking rankings, it quickly became clear that each website emphasized something different: Some valued fuel-efficiency and reliability, while others made safety the primary concern. Others clearly put a premium on style and performance. It was enough to make my head spin, until I stopped to consider: What really mattered to me? I decided that safety and reliability were my primary concerns and how fun a car was to drive was an important, if somewhat distant, third consideration.
For years, many of us have complained about the lack of similarly accessible, reliable information about healthcare. These issues are particularly salient when we consider hospital care. Despite a long-standing belief that all hospitals are the same, the truth is startlingly different: where you go has a profound impact on whether you live or die, whether you are harmed or not. There is an urgent need for better information, especially as consumers spend more money out of pocket on healthcare. Until recently, this type of transparent, consumer-focused information simply didn’t exist.
Over the past couple of months, things have begun to change. Three major organizations recently released groundbreaking hospital rankings. The Leapfrog Group, a well-respected organization focused on promoting safer hospital care, assigned hospitals grades (“A” through “F”) based on how well it cared for patients without harming them*.
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.