One Friday afternoon three years ago, Harvard Professor Ashish K. Jha found out his father had been taken to “one of the most dangerous places in the world.” Knowing as I do the energetic and courageous Professor Jha, I pictured a more senior version of him sky diving or climbing Mt. Katahdin. Unfortunately, the reality was far more banal, though still dangerous — Dr. Jha's father was taken to an American hospital.
The good news is Dr. Jha's father made a full recovery after only a few days in the hospital. The bad news: at least three potentially harmful errors occurred during those days. “On Saturday afternoon, he was given an infusion of a medicine intended for another patient — an infusion that was stopped only after I insisted that the nurse double-check the order,” recounts Dr. Jha. “After she realized the error, she tried to reassure me by saying, 'Don't worry, this happens all the time.'”
Indeed, Dr. Jha agrees this “happens all the time,” but it's not reassuring to him at all. In addition to being a concerned son, the professor is an expert in patient safety. He knew only too well the dangers his father faced — the legions of rampant errors, accidents and infections in hospitals throughout the United States.
The safety problem is an open secret among people in the health care industry. “When I tell this story, most of my colleagues shake their heads, but they are rarely surprised. We have come to expect such failures as a routine part of health care,” says Dr. Jha. The statistics are staggering. Each year, one in four people admitted to a hospital suffer some form of harm, and more than 500 patients per day die.
Dr. Jha has three recommendations. First, he calls for a better approach for tracking harm in the hospital. For a variety of reasons, this is not as easy as it should be.
Second, he says that hospitals need to feel the financial consequences of providing unsafe care. “A large proportion of hospitals have not adopted cheap and easy interventions that substantially reduce harm,” he points out.
Why is this? For one thing, the financial incentives aren't there. Most hospitals get paid for all the work they do, regardless of whether it helped or harmed the patient. The more they do, the more they make. There have been efforts to address this nonsensical financing system by paying hospitals for achieving the right outcomes for patients, including in the Affordable Care Act. But a recent study by Catalyst for Payment Reform found that only 11 percent of payments to hospitals or doctors are in any way dependent on good quality or safety.
Professor Jha's third recommendation is to create accountability for patient safety: “Senior health care leaders have to feel that their jobs depend on delivering safe care.” I would add another level of accountability implied but not stated in this recommendation: accountability to the American public. Hospital performance data should be publicly available to consumers, so we can choose doctors and hospitals with the best records. Hospitals that fail should lose market share. Last year, my organization, The Leapfrog Group, initiated one such effort, the Hospital Safety Score, a letter grade rating the safety of 2600 hospitals, which Dr. Jha advises us on. The Score is available to the public for free on our website or as an app, and it holds promise for driving a new market for safe care.
The Hospital Safety Score is useful to consult before you or your family members are admitted. But what should you do when you're already in the hospital and worried sick? Every hospital inpatient in America should navigate right now to this just-published AARP Magazine article and its virtual hospital room. The magazine noted features used in safer hospitals that all of us should look for in our own hospital. Among them:
readily available faucets with infrared lights that remind people entering the room to wash their hands when they see a patient;
IV poles, bed rails and faucets made with copper alloys, which prevents transmission of germs;
sensors that alert nurses when patients are attempting to get out of bed;
linen closets designed so staff can replenish supplies without having to enter the patient's room, which minimizes the spread of infection and disruption of the patient's rest.
The article also notes how safer hospitals use electronic systems for managing prescriptions — the best known way to prevent the kind of error Dr. Jha encountered during his father's hospital stay.
No doubt hospital leaders will read the AARP coverage without much surprise; all of this is well-known among clinicians and taught and studied throughout the health sciences. The premier textbook on patient safety advises most of what AARP found in its observations of excellent hospitals. Yet, too many hospitals still don't have the right precautions in place, and most consumers don't know to look for them. Until families make it clear to hospitals that safety matters to us, none of us, not even Harvard professors, can depend on safety when the ambulance arrives.
This article first appeared on Forbes.com.