Safe or Out?

CHW LogoTo commemorate National Patient Safety Week, I am reprising this column from a year ago.

The only apparent sign of spring around here is the fact that the baseball pre-season has begun.  Now, I’m not a member of the “baseball as a metaphor for life” school of thought, but it does seem that baseball is in some ways a lot like medical care.  Both involve a large team of people with specialized jobs who spend most of their time in what I would term “anticipatory inaction” (i.e., standing around and waiting for something to happen).  And when they do go into action, the goal is to get someone to home.  (One could also add the unexplained ridiculous prices – a $9 Miller Lite is even less defensible than a $25 Tylenol.)

They also share the concept of being safe, but here they diverge.  In baseball, “safe” is a result – one branch of a dichotomous outcome, the opposite of “out.”  But in healthcare, “safe” is much more complex.  It does involve good outcomes: one measure of safety is the absence of harm caused by the care provided, such as wound infections or pressure ulcers.  However, while such outcomes are an important measure of safety, and are necessary, they are not sufficient.  No wound infections can result from safety or from luck.  Safety is as much about the structures and processes that create a safe environment.  A car without airbags or seatbelts is unsafe even if you drive it many miles without getting injured.

I was thinking about this recently as we at Children’s increase our commitment to providing the best and safest care.  We participate in something called Solutions for Patient Safety, a collaborative of almost 80 children’s hospitals around the country.  The hospitals share data and best practices to try to eliminate patient harm.  When I have seen the data, on most measures we perform better than most, so it would seem that we are a “safe” hospital.  But even if we have a rate of 0, that by itself does not mean we are safe.  I used to have this argument with my son: I’d catch him riding his bike without a helmet, and tell him that wasn’t safe; he would argue that he hadn’t gotten hurt.  To which I would respond, “Yet.”

So while I feel good about our record, we can’t get complacent.  That’s why we are embarking on an effort to increase education among all of the staff and providers on what it takes to be a high reliability organization – the kind of place where not only do harmful events not happen, but they can’t happen.  It means having systems in place that make it easy to do the right thing and hard to do the wrong one.  Redundancy, double checks, alerts, standardized approaches, checklists, etc.

It also means having an environment and culture of safety.  This is an environment where people continually seek to improve by asking questions, raising issues, and intervening when there is a problem.  There are many elements critical to a functioning culture of safety, one of which is what we call “just culture.”  This means treating errors, when they do occur, as a system flaw, not a character flaw.  If I order the wrong medication, or forget to give someone a tetanus shot, it doesn’t mean I’m a bad person.  In a just culture, people are more willing to acknowledge errors, and more willing to point them out.

Creating a just culture and an environment of safety are challenging in practice.  For one thing, it requires overcoming the rather natural tendency to blame on the one hand, and to be defensive on the other.  It’s one thing for an organization to say “we’re not blaming you,” but only after an extended period of acting that way will people feel confident in the attitude shift.  In hospitals in particular, there is a traditional hierarchy that must be overcome.  It doesn’t matter how many posters we put up asserting “You have our permission to speak up,” it is never going to be easy for a nurse six months out of school to tell the chief of surgery that he or she is about to use the wrong instrument.  And it’s even harder if that physician makes it difficult by their response.

In recent years, physician performance has been defined around six core competencies.  Among these are medical knowledge and patient care, which are somewhat easy to define and measure.  Another key one, professionalism, has been shown to be a key element in creating the kind of atmosphere that promotes safety.  Much has been written about disruptive behavior –up to 5% of providers are estimated to be regularly disruptive.  But professionalism, and unprofessional behavior,  is much harder to measure.  It can range from an attitude of dismissiveness to frank verbal or physical abuse.  To paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart, it may be that you know it when you see it.  But the more objectively we can define it, the easier it is to identify when there are problems, to create actionable solutions, and monitor progress.  It allows for fair processes to hold people accountable and ultimately improve, which is the goal.  As difficult as it is to live out a “just culture” when it comes to things like medication errors, it’s that much harder when the “error” is a behavior.  It’s one reason we have moved away from the older language of “problem physicians” to “disruptive behavior.”

Not long ago, I was approached by my medical director and patient care manager with a concern about how I might be making the emergency department unsafe.  They told me that a nurse had indicated, in a survey, that “Dr. Gorelick is difficult to work with.  He is hard to approach with questions and dismissive of the nurses.”  I was absolutely floored.  I don’t consider myself to be a difficult person, and I pride myself on my respect for nurses and indeed all the members of the care team.  (My mother is a nurse, after al!)  But while I heard “Dr. Gorelick is a difficult person who disrespects nurses,” what was actually said was quite different.  It was about my actions, and a specific set of actions at that.  It caused me to reflect, and I realized it was true.  As I’ve written about before, I find it increasingly difficult for whatever reason (I’m sure it’s not aging…)  to get back on task when I’m interrupted.  So if I’m entering an order or writing a note and someone stops me to ask me a question, I do sometimes get snappy.  I worry that it will at least set me back in the task I was doing, and may even increase the risk of an ordering error.  In the parlance of our mood elevator, I go to the lower floors of judgmental and irritated.  But by being hard to approach, I was creating my own safety hazard.  The next time a child needed immediate attention, nurses might hesitate to seek me out, putting that child at risk.

As Warren Buffett said, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation, and five minutes to ruin one.”  My reputation was also at risk, and I needed to fix it.  The first step was acknowledging the problem, and owning it.  The problem was not the nurses’ inability to prioritize, it was my reaction to being interrupted.  Rather than being irritable, I needed to be curious – why does this person want my attention now?  If it turns out to be something that could wait, let’s have a respectful discussion about the risks of unnecessary interruptions, which could lead to a constructive solution (e.g., some way to let me know I’m needed soon but not immediately).

This sounds easier than it is.  I’m sure I still seem less than approachable at times in the emergency department.  As much as I’ve tried to objectify this and focus on my behaviors, it still feels like a questioning of my character.  And no doubt people’s perceptions are colored by my prior actions: even a slight hesitation in responding could be perceived as being “difficult” again.  But if I want to restore my reputation – and more importantly, contribute to the kind of environment that allows us to provide the best and safest care – I have to be accountable for my role.  Professional behavior is like an RBI, allowing our patient to get home safe.  Sometimes we have to attend batting practice.

EPILOGUE:  A recent article demonstrated a link between unsafe attitudes and negative safety outcomes:

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