This is the second of a two-part series examining medical errors. Part 1 addressed thought processes hospitalists use that may lead to mistaken diagnoses (October 2007, p. 36). Part 2 examines what healthcare corporations are doing to improve diagnoses and reduce errors.
Pilots taking off, Swiss cheese, low-hanging fruit. Talk to hospitalists about the issue of medical errors and the analogies come quickly.
Ever since 2000’s landmark Institute of Medicine report “To Err is Human: Building a Safer Health System” found that anywhere from 40,000 to 100,000 patients incur injury or die every year because of medical errors, debate has been constant.
Medical literature is abundant on this topic. The Joint Commission, National Center for Patient Safety, Agency for Health Care Research and Quality, and myriad other organizations and institutions, including SHM, are all helping providers and hospitals solve the problems by establishing goals, standards, guidelines, and policies.
—Evan Falchuk, president, Best Doctors Inc., Boston
Definitions and Paradigms
Best-practice recommendations for reducing errors are generally based on two essential principles: using a systems-based approach to patient safety and creating an environment that supports open dialogue about errors, their causes, and strategies for prevention.
Terminology is a key factor. The terms “error” and “mistake” carry an emotional component associated with embarrassment and shame. Healthcare providers don’t like to be associated with errors. There is an accompanying fear of litigation, and people, perhaps especially physicians, don’t want to be known as someone who was sued.
“The language we use to talk about these issues is important,” says Janet Nagamine, MD, part-time hospitalist at Kaiser Permanente Santa Clara Medical Center in Calif. and current chair of SHM’s quality and patient safety committee. In fact, because of the negativity around the terms “misdiagnosis” and “delay in diagnosis” she advocates using the term “unintended adverse event” in order to appear more neutral.
“The term error is extremely threatening and scary to any health professional because it implies a personal failure,” says Dr. Nagamine. The goal when it comes to errors is essentially to look for the how—not the who.
Reporting medical errors is one thing, but reporting misdiagnoses is another, says Lakshmi Halasyamani, MD, vice chair for the department of internal medicine at St. Joseph’s Mercy Hospital in Ann Arbor, Mich., and SHM board member. “We don’t really talk about misdiagnosis,” she says. “That’s partly because we have tended to assign more individual blame for misdiagnoses.”
Drs. Nagamine and Halasyamani agree that altering the way of viewing errors means nurturing culture change.
“We have made very little headway helping physicians understand that in the course of their careers there will be misdiagnoses and the best of physicians have misdiagnoses,” says Dr. Halasyamani. “We are not developmentally at the same stage that we are with talking about medical errors.”
She believes this is largely a professionalism issue that first means normalizing the issue of misdiagnosis. “It is kind of ludicrous to think that you will practice medicine over 40 years and not have a misdiagnosis,” she says. “But we don’t look at it from that perspective when we begin to orient trainees.”
To the people at the U.S. Pharmacopeia Center for the Advancement of Patient Safety (USP), the arrival of universal electronic medical records (EMR) in the coming decade will be a boon to the error-reduction effort.