What is it worth to be treated in a hospital with a stellar patient safety record rather than one with lower performance?

For a large majority of survey participants in a recent study by researchers from the Altarum Institute and Drexel University, the answer is quite a lot. Published online last month in the Journal of Patient Safety, the study found that most respondents would choose a hospital with a higher patient safety rating, even if it meant paying an additional $1000 in out-of-pocket costs. The results give hope that patient safety performance will be a powerful motivator in hospital choice — and thus in compelling hospitals to improve.

In the survey, roughly 2600 individuals were introduced to the concept of patient safety and what better safety ratings mean: “fewer problems such as infections, injuries, medication errors and deaths during surgery.” They were then introduced to the Leapfrog Group Hospital Safety Score, a composite patient safety measure that assigns a letter grade to each hospital. Each participant was presented with one of 30 scenarios, in which they had to choose between two hospitals with different Hospital Safety Scores, out-of-pocket costs and total price.

Jamie_AI_PS (2)As one might expect, nearly 100 percent of patients preferred the safer hospital when their out-of-pocket cost was the same or less than the hospital with the lower safety score. Nearly 60 percent of patients were willing to trade down from an “A” hospital to a “B” hospital if that meant saving $1000. But less than 40 percent would make the trade-off from an “A” to a “C” hospital, and in other scenarios, an overwhelming majority of patients said that they would seek safer care despite it costing them more (see graphic).

These were hypothetical scenarios, and we know that patients consider a mix of factors when choosing a hospital — such as their primary care physician’s recommendations, other people’s experiences, magazine rankings, reputation, location and even whether there is free parking.

There is little evidence that publicly reported patient safety measures are a major part of that equation for most actual patients. That could be due to a number of factors. People may be unaware of the issue of preventable harm, or it might seem like a vague concept to them. They may choose to ignore it, keeping faith that they won’t experience a preventable harm. Or, even if they seek out the safety and quality data, they may be overwhelmed by the sheer number of measures to track down and sift through. They may not be aware of composite scores such as the Leapfrog Group’s.

This study hints at what might be needed for patient safety performance to get the attention it deserves in these decisions.

  • Public awareness. As I discussed in a recent blog post, patient safety leaders have done a poor job of speaking to the public about the scope of preventable patient harm. We need to engage civic groups and other organizations to rally around this cause.
  • Composite measures. Rather than assume that patients will evaluate and synthesize the various patient safety measures on their own, composite measures such as the Leapfrog safety score presents a simple, easy to understand letter grade. If users want to drill down, they can see how hospitals perform in specific safety areas. (I should disclose that I am part of a nine-person panel that advises the Leapfrog Group on the Hospital Safety Score. Additionally, Matt Austin, an assistant professor with the Johns Hopkins Armstrong Institute, facilitates the score.)
  • Advance measurement science. While composite scores are a step in the right direction, they are making the best of the still-young science of patient safety measures. We need to continually push to advance this science. For example, we need a greater number of valid measures that capture patient outcomes.

If you’re shopping for a new car, you could quickly track down the well-tested, simple safety ratings from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. People know that good ratings mean less chance of death or serious injury should they have an auto accident, as well as an increased ability to avoid crashes in the first place. A low rating certainly is a red flag when you’re considering a particular model. For patients selecting a hospital, safety ratings should one day be treated the same way.

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Insulin injection penThe safety concerns that keep clinicians awake at night often aren't issues that you could fit onto a safety and quality dashboard. They aren't the kinds of things that feed metrics on the CMS Hospital Compare website or any of the other sources of publicly reported quality measures. They are intensely local, and no less important for being so.

This reminder came to me last week during a quarterly meeting of Comprehensive Unit-based Safety Program (CUSP) teams from across Johns Hopkins. This meeting is a chance for these teams to share successes, learn from one another and discuss common challenges. For instance, one team was concerned that improper handling of insulin pens might lead patients to be injected with a pen that had already been used on another patient. These pens must be kept in a patient-specific drawer in a medication room between administrations. Yet frequent interruptions and the distance to the medication room make it hard for nurses to follow this consistently. They might be tempted to place an insulin pen in a coat pocket and move on to another patient's room, where they could mistake one patient's pen for another. So the unit has formed an interdisciplinary group that will be pilot testing a solution — a clear lockbox in each patient's room that holds only these pens — in four units across the hospital.

This was but one example of how local units were identifying hazards, owning problems and coming up with system fixes for them. Another unit presented its investigation into a malfunctioning device, the findings of which will go to the Food and Drug Administration.

Today, health care faces pressure from all fronts to prevent harm and demonstrate high-quality care. We track and publicly report health care-acquired conditions such as infections, patient safety indicators like accidental vein lacerations and adherence to evidence-based care processes known as core measures. We measure harm in patient experience by whether patients felt respected and had their needs met though the Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems survey.

Increasingly these measures are shared online, tied to reimbursement and hospital reputation. They can be tracked, and they can help our health care organizations to see how they are performing compared to their goals and to other hospitals. These metrics are important, of course. But they paint an incomplete picture of what constitutes preventable harm.

Patients suffer harm when they receive disrespectful care, or when we perform invasive treatments at the end of life that are not in line with their goals. They are harmed when we waste their money by increasing their out-of-pocket expenses on therapies they do not need, when a provider orders lab tests out of fear of being second-guessed by an attending physician and when we order an intravenous drug when a less expensive oral medication would do just as well.

No doubt, it is overwhelming to commit to zero harm, especially when we define it so broadly. There are just so many ways that we can fall short of patients’ expectations and needs. Certainly there aren't enough months in the year for each harm type to be a "flavor of the month," even if that were a wise approach to begin with. Continue Reading ...

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ebola3Your body is covered from head to toe in protective equipment, and it’s 115 degrees Fahrenheit inside your outfit. Your hands sweat under two pairs of gloves. An ill-fitting hood creeps down your forehead and nearly covers your eyes, but you cannot touch your head to shift it back up. To top it off, the exterior of your protective garb is partially covered with bodily fluids from a patient with Ebola.

The time comes to leave the patient’s room without leaving a trace of the virus on you or carrying it outside the room. You are anxious and tired but careful to follow infection-control protocols as you remove a disposable face shield, hood, mask, booties and other garb. Yet as you do, a piece of hair falls down over your eyes. In a split second and without thinking, you brush it back, and an infected glove glances across a misty eye. The virus is in you.

In a health care world where infection control methods are part of daily practice, Ebola requires a new level of vigilance. Even scrupulous health care providers could get infected without the proper training and support on how to put on and take off personal protective equipment, or PPE.

The new Ebola protection guidelines for PPE use issued this month by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are a critical step in protecting patients, health care professionals and populations in the United States and abroad. Highlights of these new guidelines include leaving no skin exposed and requiring a trained observer to actively help the health care provider to follow the protocols for donning and removing their protective equipment. Because there is very little that one can do to prevent infection after exposure to this unforgiving virus, it is essential that clinicians know this guidance inside and out, become competent in putting on and removing PPE and have a “buddy” to coach them to ensure that they adhere to each and every step.

But like many clinical guidelines, following them is like following the directions for assembling an IKEA chair. They need to be translated into something that providers can easily absorb, that points out the most important steps and provides guidance for implementing them in real time, under real-world constraints. We need to create systems that help health care workers to follow these guidelines, and clinicians need to practice until they are competent. Health care workers also need to know how to respond in those instances when something doesn’t go according to plan.

With that in mind, the CDC asked the Johns Hopkins’ Armstrong Institute for Patient Safety and Quality to convene a team to produce a series of interactive, online training programs on following the new PPE guidelines. Released this afternoon, the videos provide guidance for putting on and removing PPE and allow users to select training specific to the type of respirator and body covering that they will be wearing. Another video module, which guides trained observers on how to be effective in their roles, will be available in days. The free course will also be available on iTunes U. Continue Reading ...

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Last Thursday, I made a presentation about patient safety to about 200 senior citizens at The Women’s Club of Chatham. My mother lives there, a picture-perfect town at the elbow of Cape Cod, with an old-fashioned main street that hosts a Fourth of July parade. For a while she had been asking me to give a talk to the group, and when she provided possible dates, I couldn't refuse.

When I told the audience that preventable patient harm is the third leading cause of death in the United States, the highly educated crowd seemed shocked, as if they just heard that their family was the focus of the latest town gossip.

But as usual, I probably learned more from them than they did from me. One by one, they told stories of harm: a granddaughter who died from a pain medication overdose; a spouse who died from a misdiagnosis; a women’s club member who suffered a blood clot that went to her lungs; a daughter who had multiple operations and still is very ill, a year after acquiring a drug-resistant infection.

They also told stories of communication errors and of doctors who don’t like to be questioned. They remembered experiences of leaving the hospital scared, confused and uncertain. To be fair, they also told stories of excellent care delivery.

Like many patients, they wanted to know how to select an excellent doctor and hospital. I emphasized the importance of doing their homework, such as finding out how many times the doctor or hospital has performed the procedure the patient is considering. I pointed them to several websites that post transparent, valid measures of patient safety and quality, such as the federal government’s Hospital Compare, Consumer Reports, the Leapfrog Group and some state health departments. We discussed how perhaps the biggest red flag is a doctor who does not welcome being questioned, is reluctant to seek a second opinion or doesn't encourage patients to participate in their care.

Beyond making their own health care choices, these women wanted to mobilize and raise the profile of the patient safety problem. One woman, a member of Grandmothers Against Gun Violence, asked if we could start “Grandmothers Against Preventable Harm.”

As we talked and their energy soared, mine did too, though with a bit of shame. These women want safe, patient-centered care and they are willing to advocate for it. Yet the patient safety movement has not mobilized this army, tapped their wisdom or channeled their energy. Today, fifteen years after the Institute of Medicine issued To Err is Human, this group was unaware of this report or the extent of the patient safety problem that it exposed. Perhaps they saw their own personal experiences with health care as aberrations or strokes of bad luck, rather than products of larger systemic problems. They all suffered alone.

Those of us leading patient safety have been too insular. We have talked to each other but not to the public. The victims of preventable patient harm often die silently, one at a time. With some exceptions, we don’t have the high-profile disasters that grab headlines and spur policymakers to take action, such as airplane crashes. And although this public health problem is equivalent to two Boeing 747 airliners crashing every day, research funding for improving the safety and quality of care delivery remains paltry. Continue Reading ...

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Earlier this year, our hospital staff was weighing a new 24/7 family presence policy to allow immediate family members to stay with  patients 24 hours a day. We knew this was a step in the direction of delivering patient- and family-centered care.

We presented the proposal at a meeting of our Patient and Family Advisory Council.  One of the members of the council told a story that drove home the importance of this decision. When her son was battling a fatal illness in the hospital, she had to leave him when visiting hours ended. She couldn’t stand the thought of being far away, she told the group, so instead of going home she slept in her car in the hospital’s parking garage.

It’s hard to gauge exactly how her story ultimately affected The Johns Hopkins Hospital’s new 24/7 family presence policy. But one thing is clear: Involving patients and family members in decision-making fundamentally changes the conversation for the better, whether the issue involves an individual treatment decision or a hospital-wide policy. Charlene Rothkopf, a former patient who sits on two of our health system’s safety and quality boards, puts it so eloquently. “Many times our health care professionals get so caught up in the day-to-day press of business, that they may lose sight of  the real meaning of what they’re there for,” she says. “Patients help bring that to light.” Patients appreciate the importance of simple things, such as discussing their concerns about an upcoming surgery or providing a compassionate touch, she says.

Sadly, the status quo in health care does not always engage patients and their loved ones, and we are all less healthy for it. We don’t always ask patients what their goals are for their care. We sometimes forget to introduce ourselves by name when we walk into a room. We deliver aggressive and expensive treatments to prolong life, without always having conversations with patients to determine whether they want these well-intentioned steps. We confuse patients with a stream of physicians and nurses that leaves them wondering who, if anyone, is overseeing and coordinating their overall care. We send patients out of the hospital without a clear understanding of how to provide self-care or without hard-wiring the connection to their outpatient physicians. Continue Reading ...

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clinician and patientRecently in one of The Johns Hopkins Hospital's intensive care units, a patient was dying from cancer and sepsis, and there was nothing that I, nurse Mandy Schwartz or anyone else could do to stop it. Yet as the patient’s family—two daughters and a husband—suffered at her bedside, Mandy saw their need for comfort, and she responded. Although she was busy with nursing tasks, she delved into the inner life of the patient and family. She helped the mother look as good as possible—hair combed, face washed, a clean gown and sheets. She made sure the patient was pain-free and not anxious. She hugged one daughter who was “a hugger” and avoided embracing the other daughter who wasn't. She sat with the family, listened and supported them in their anguish.

Schwartz gave comfort to the family because she cares and has true empathy.  There’s no way that we could train her to care more. Yet too often, efforts by hospitals to improve the patient and family experience approach it purely as a technical challenge. For instance, we provide scripts to health care professionals to help them navigate various situations, from what to say when walking into a patient’s room to service recovery when things haven’t gone as they wished.  We try to identify and broadly implement the practices that will best enhance patient experiences, such as rounding hourly in patient rooms to address pain management, bathroom visits and other needs.

These are well-intentioned and needed efforts to improve the patient experience. But they could very well backfire if we don’t simultaneously embrace the human element and tap into clinicians’ desire to be empathic healers and comforters. I fear that we send the wrong message, for instance, when we simply hand detailed scripts to staff in low-performing units or hospitals. Subtly, we’re labeling them as someone who does not care adequately for patients, and that they need to be taught how to do better. Here, we say, mouth these words and the patient and loved ones will believe that you care. Likewise, hourly rounding and other interventions will not be effective if we simply treat them as a box to be checked off.

Words are important, of course. And caregivers can certainly learn how to insert key words and phrases into their conversations with patients to show they care and open the door to more meaningful dialogue. However, health care is too complex and nuanced for a lengthy script to be useful.

Clinicians witness the extreme highs and lows of other people’s lives, yet like any job this becomes our everyday reality, with mundane documentation, meetings and bureaucracy. It’s easy to forget that “just like me” someone may be in the hospital for the first time, that their family members must take off work for an extended period of time to be with them, or that the outcome of their stay is a turning point in their family’s future.

When we lose sight of the connection with our common humanity, with our patients’ suffering, we can fail to connect with our patients’ needs for empathy as well as healing.  We can get so caught up in the tasks that we need to do that we don’t stop to care. While we think we are still delivering good care, patients perceive our frenzied state and decide it’s wiser not to raise valid concerns.

What can help us to reverse this?

There’s more than a single thing, but one powerful approach involves coaching caregivers on their interactions with patients and loved ones. On a surgical unit in The Johns Hopkins Hospital, scores on HCAHPS—the national post-discharge survey sent to patients after discharge—were far below national averages. In their written responses, some patients said that they felt unwelcome to raise concerns, or that staff made them feel like a burden. Continue Reading ...

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For the second year in a row, The Johns Hopkins University will lead a free online course, The Science of Safety in Healthcare, which begins June 2 and continues for five weeks. If you have ever wanted an introduction to patient safety concepts—or have colleagues with interest—this five-week course is a great opportunity.

Transforming our health care system demands that everyone—from the front lines to c-suite—have a common understanding of the science of how harm occurs and how to prevent it. Massively open online courses (MOOCs) such as this have promise to spread those lessons.

Last year’s course was a great success, with thousands of students energized around this topic. We've improved on that curriculum by re-shooting videos from that first session in higher quality. We will also introduce new topics such as adverse-event reporting and engaging families in patient care.

Also new is the fact that Albert Wu, an internist and internationally recognized patient safety expert from Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health, will be joining Cheryl Dennison Himmelfarb, of our School of Nursing, and me in teaching the course. Wu is a leading voice on such topics as disclosing adverse events, providing support for health care professionals who are involved in medical errors, and health service and outcomes research.

MOOCs such as this are a great experiment in higher education, bringing programs for free to thousands of people at a time. And while they historically have offered no academic or continuing education credit, that is beginning to change. This year’s patient safety course, for example, will now offer continuing nursing education credits for a fee for those who wish to pursue them.

Learn more about the curriculum and sign up.

 

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This week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued two reports that are simultaneously scary and encouraging.

First, the scary news: A national survey conducted in 2011 found that one in every 25 U.S. hospital patients experienced a healthcare-associated infection. That’s 648,000 patients with a combined 722,000 infections. About 75,000 of those patients died during their hospitalizations, although it’s unknown how many of those deaths resulted from the infections, the CDC researchers reported in the New England Journal of Medicine.

On the bright side, those numbers are less than half the number of hospital-acquired infections that a national survey estimated in 2007. And a second report issued this week found significant decreases in several infection types that have seen the most focused prevention efforts on a national scale. Noteworthy was a 44 percent decrease in central line-associated bloodstream infections (CLABSI) between 2008 and 2012, as well as a 20 percent reduction in infections related to 10 surgical procedures over the same time period.

These infections were once thought to be inevitable, resulting from patients who were too old, too sick or just plain unlucky. We now know that we can put a significant dent in these events, and even achieve zero infections among the most vulnerable patients. At Johns Hopkins, we created a program that combated CLABSI in intensive care units through a multi-pronged approach—implementing a simple checklist of evidence-based measures while changing culture and caregivers' attitudes through an approach called the Comprehensive Unit-based Safety Program (CUSP). The success was replicated on a larger scale across 103 Michigan ICUs and then later across most U.S. states, with impressive results.

These and similar successes have changed caregivers’ beliefs about what is possible, and inspired more efforts to reach zero infections.

What will it take to attain this goal—or at least get much closer?

We need policymakers to continue providing support so that we can mature the science of improving patient safety. We need their help to create valid and widely accepted performance measures, as well as advance implementation science so that we can learn how best to translate medical evidence into everyday bedside practice.

Hospitals have a big role, of course. As organizations, they must focus on the safety and quality of care with the same rigor and accountability that they bring to their financial performance. Almost without fail, hospital CEOs can tell you if their organization is meeting its budget goals. There are financial specialists at various levels of the organization, and there are consequences for poor performance. When it comes to patient safety, however, those structures rarely exist, even when the desire to reduce harm is strong. Some hospital CEOs I've met didn't know the infection rates at their facilities. Sometimes those rates are known only by the infection prevention department.

What we need are chains of accountability that link everyone in a hospital—from the board to the frontline staff—so that everyone has a shared understanding of their organizational goals, knows their role in meeting them, and gets feedback (such as dashboards) on how they are performing. Those organizations also need the internal capacity—health care professionals with the appropriate training—to carry out their roles in this chain. It sounds simple, but clearly it’s not. Over the past year, Armstrong Institute researchers worked with the VHA hospital engagement network on a demonstration project that sought to create those accountability structures at 10 U.S. hospitals. The initial results are encouraging, with 92 percent of participants reporting that they felt their organization has made improvements in targeted areas, such as surgical site infections (SSIs). It’s breathtaking what we can accomplish when everyone is working toward the same goal. Continue Reading ...

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The doughnut shop I pass on my drive to the hospital isn't the kind of place where you might expect to see outpourings of random kindness. It sits in the shadow of a raised highway, a few doors down from a bail bond business and a block away from a prison complex that resembles a medieval castle. One Sunday before Valentine’s Day, the line to get served there was long, checkered with homeless people—some of whom sleep under the highway to stay dry and protected from the wind—and more well-off people getting breakfast or bringing bagels or doughnuts to work or church.

A homeless couple stood ahead of me. Their clothes and hair were dirty, and the undersides of their fingernails were caked in dirt, as if they had just come in from gardening without gloves. They appeared very much in love—standing close, gently touching and smiling. She wanted a heart-shaped doughnut, and he wanted the same. They reached deep into every pocket counting their change, hoping to find enough.

They were a nickel short. Sheepishly, they turned to me and asked for help. I had a feeling of injustice: Here I was bringing doughnuts to doctors, nurses and staff who did not need them, yet this couple would not have breakfast without help. Not wanting to shame them, I softly told them that they could order whatever they wanted and that I would be happy to buy them breakfast.

When they ordered, the cashier looked at them judgmentally. Perhaps she had been stiffed before, or maybe she knew they did not have the money. The woman spoke up, stating that I had offered to pay. The cashier looked at me and I nodded.

That is when the cascade started. “What a great idea,” said a woman behind me, who was picking up doughnuts for Sunday school. She offered to buy breakfast for the homeless person next to her. The nurse behind her did the same, as did the police officer further back. The nurse and Sunday school teacher discussed how they were going to come back the following Sunday to do this again.

I was also moved by their generosity and handed the homeless couple more money to cover lunch and dinner and perhaps pay for a stay at a shelter. They wept, and I sat down at the table with them. They spoke excellent English, as if they had graduated college or higher. The man explained how they never intended to be that way. They hit some “rough patches” and made a couple bad decisions, he said. “We are something,” the woman told me. I told them that I believed them. My only request, I said, is that when they got back on their feet, they “pay it forward” to someone in need.

For weeks, I reflected on that day not quite understanding what exactly had happened. Then I read a New York Times article on the science of paying it forward. Cornell University sociologists Milena Tsvetkova and Michael Macy explained how we are much more likely to perform a kind act when we experience or witness one. Experiencing a small kindness is more potent than observing one, though in the case of the doughnut shop, observing proved a potent pill. They describe how chains like I observed are not rare at all. At a drive-through coffee shop in Manitoba, Canada, one customer paid for the person behind them, and the chain progressed to 226 people. At a Chick-Fil-A drive-through, there was a 67-customer cascade after one generous customer paid for the person next in line. Continue Reading ...

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One of the most exciting things about working in patient safety and health care quality is that it’s not solely about advancing science or applying performance improvement methods. It is also about the excitement of being part of a social movement that is changing the culture of medicine—putting patients at the center of everything, sharing errors in the hopes of preventing future ones, and confronting hierarchies that stifle communication and innovation.

Kate Granger, a physician in the United Kingdom who is living with terminal cancer, has tapped into that sort of enthusiasm in a big way. Last summer, reflecting on a recent hospital admission, Granger remarked in her insightful blog that some members of her care team never introduced themselves when approaching her. She wrote:

As a healthcare professional you know so much about your patient. You know their name, their personal details, their health conditions, who they live with and much more. What do we as patients know about our healthcare professionals? The answer is often absolutely nothing, sometimes it seems not even their names. The balance of power is very one-sided in favour of the healthcare professional.

She asked that health care professionals make a pledge to introduce themselves to every patient that they meet, and share the challenge with others across the National Health Service. Thus was born a movement that went viral, aided by the Twitter hashtag #hellomynameis. More than five months since her post, there is a steady stream of tweets every day. Some clinicians wear lanyards with the hashtag, a show of support and a reminder to introduce themselves. Last week, NHS Employers released a video celebrating the #hellomynameis campaign.

More than anything, introducing yourself to patients is an issue of providing compassionate care. But it is also a patient safety issue. We know that faulty communication so often lies at the root of medical errors. How many adverse events might be prevented if all clinicians introduced themselves, making them more inviting to questions and concerns? Continue Reading ...

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