Transparency Works In Medical Errors

Armen Hareyan's picture
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I just saw clear evidence of the importance of transparency with regard to the reporting of important adverse events and medical errors. Bear with me through the details, but I will not keep you in suspense regarding the conclusion: The wide disclosure of a "never" event in a blame-free manner resulted in an intensity of focus and communal effort to solve an important systemic problem, resulting in redesign of clinical procedures, buy-in from hundreds of relevant staff people, and an audit system that will monitor the effectiveness of the new approach and leave open the possibility for ongoing improvement.

If you ever needed a clear example of the power of transparency, here it is.

Back in early July, a patient experienced a wrong-side surgery in our hospital because the staff failed to carry out the required time-out. We disseminated the story of this event to all staff in the hospital. There was a full investigation of the matter, both internally and by the state DPH, and some immediate improvements were made in our procedures. But the more important work was being done by a Safety Culture Operational Task Force co-chaired by a nurse, a surgeon, and an anesthesiologist, and engaging almost two dozen other people from a variety of disciplines and positions in the hospital.

Its charge and mission: To implement and embed the Culture of Safety at the point of care in Perioperative Services, with an emphasis on teamwork and enhanced communications.

They adopted the following principles of patient safety:
-- Building in redundancies and cross checks
-- Standardization
-- Simplification
-- Forcing functions
-- Empowering the grassroots to lead change

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They set forth a number of objectives, the first of which were to assure compliance with the time-out Universal Protocol; to script the time-out; and to design and oversee time-out audits. In so doing, they wanted to review and adopt not only the WHO Safety Checklist, but also to incorporate forthcoming 2009 Joint Commission regulations.

The result is pictured above. The document above is the check list that went into use today for all surgical procedures in our hospital. Not shown above is a corresponding computer screen version of the checklist that will be filled out in real time by the circulating nurse as the time out proceeds.

Responsibilities and the order of events is clearly laid out, even to the point of requiring that any radio in the OR is shut off during the time-out so as to avoid aural distraction. Note the forcing function at the very top of the form: No blades, needles, specula or bronchoscopes can be within reach of the surgeon until the full time-out is completed. Also, a system of "secret shoppers" has been set up to quietly audit compliance with these procedures. These are people from a variety of disciplines who normally work in the ORs who have been given this additional job responsibility.

This material was presented today in interdisciplinary grand rounds attended by about 300 people -- doctors, nurses, surgical techs. The response was enthusiastic, as everyone realized the vast improvement this would make in patient safety. And yet, even at this last moment, there were suggestions from the floor that made the process even better.

And then, I just attended a meeting of our Chiefs of Service and senior administrators. I suggested that this kind of effort and the responsiveness seen by our staff would not have happened if they had adopted the traditional approach to a "never" event -- i.e., a quiet discussion among the leadership with a directive to avoid the problem. The response from the three Task Force co-chairs was unanimous: It was because our leadership had the confidence in our staff to go public with this event that the improvement process took on life and energy.

One of our nurse managers today told me that the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons reports that in a 35-year career, an orthopaedic surgeon has a 1 in 4 chance of performing a wrong-side surgery. Three years ago, people in our hospital might have said, "These things happen." We have now learned that they only happen because we let them happen. We let them happen because of our own silence and fear.

No longer.

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