Quality improvement (QI) researchers were shocked and dismayed when the Office of Human Research Protections (OHRP) froze a multicenter project investigating the use of checklists to reduce infections in intensive care units (ICU).
Even though this simple intervention had been shown to dramatically cut ICU infection rates, the OHRP opted to halt the study because Johns Hopkins researchers hadn’t run their protocols by the institutional review boards (IRBs) of the 100-plus hospitals participating in the study.
Fearing that this ruling might have a chilling effect on QI studies nationwide, SHM immediately set out to build a coalition of medical organizations to challenge the OHRP’s decision.
SHM is joining several other medical societies to send a letter to Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Mike Leavitt to ask him to lift the OHRP’s ban on data collection. In addition, the SHM has posted a letter on its Legislative Action Center Web page (accessible at www.hospitalmedicine.org/beheard) so members can add their voices to the protest.
What shocked many was the breadth of the OHRP’s ruling—and the rationale behind it. The OHRP’s problem with the Hopkins study wasn’t that the intervention was harmful—or even risky. The problem was that researchers Pronovost, et al., had published their results in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2006 and hadn’t treated this study as “human subjects research.”1
In general, the OHRP’s goals are laudable, says Robert Wachter, MD, professor and chief of the division of hospital medicine and a professor at the University of California at San Francisco and a former president of the SHM. They want to protect patients.
“I’m not clamoring to get rid of IRBs or to subject unwitting patients to potentially harmful therapies,” Dr. Wachter says. “But it’s crucial to find the right balance between protections built into the research world and allowing people to do quality improvement. This ruling is wrong.”
You want there to constantly be implementation of strategies to improve quality of care and attempts to measurement the impact of those strategies, Dr. Wachter says. “This is the kind of thing that hospitalists should be doing as soon as they wake up in the morning,” he adds.
The checklist at the center of the controversy included five easily implemented procedures that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had previously identified as effective in reducing the rate of infections that could result when a central line catheter was inserted. Among the procedures on the checklist were such seemingly commonsense measures as hand washing, cleaning the patient’s skin with chlorhexidine, and using barrier precautions during catheter insertions.
The Hopkins researchers suspected that in the busy ICU environment, these procedures were not routinely followed. Physicians might benefit from a reminder—a checklist.
To determine whether something as simple as a checklist could have an effect on infection rates, researchers from the Johns Hopkins Center for Innovation in Quality Patient Care partnered with 103 hospitals in Michigan that agreed to implement the checklists and keep track of infection rates.
When the researchers compared infection rates before and after the checklists were implemented, they found infections had dropped by two-thirds within the first three months. That’s pretty significant when you consider that each year in ICUs across the nation, there are 80,000 catheter-related bloodstream infections that result in an estimated 28,000 patient deaths.
—Robert Wachter, MD, professor and chief of the division of hospital medicine, University of California, San Francisco