“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate …”
(Cool Hand Luke)
Every three months, the personnel in my office get a little nervous as we send out the quarterly personal e-mails to physicians. These e-mails, titled “Quality Indicator Deficiency,” are generated from the quality department’s abstraction of quality measures. The e-mails are personally sent from me, the chief medical officer, to the attending physician. For each measure abstracted, an attending is assigned responsibility (some like to call it “blame”). Despite the fact that we are a teaching hospital, we focus on the attendings who oversee the residents, but residents are copied on the e-mail. The deficiency assignment is based on the physician deemed most critical to the delivery of the measure.
For example, for a patient with pneumonia admitted through the ED, the ED physician is assigned the correct antibiotics measure. If the patient was directly admitted to a nursing unit, the admitting attending is assigned the correct antibiotic measure. Similarly, the anesthesia attending, not the surgeon, is given the pre-operative antibiotic measure.
Why the anxiety from my office? Because when the letters go out, there usually is a very rapid response by many physicians, which results in significant scrutiny of the letters. I refer to this as “good conflict.” Not everyone in my office always agrees with the good part, but there is agreement that this leads to significant discussion and awareness. Prior to the letters, we were like many organizations: We reported aggregate data regularly in a variety of forums and formats in order to promote awareness. We had regular conversations with physicians, physician leaders, and hospital staff. There were numerous quality-improvement efforts in measure areas. We continue to do all of these things, but it is the letters that have turned it up a notch.
Responses fall into three categories. First, “The data is wrong.” Second, “This is not my fault. It was so-and-so’s fault.” Third, “A hospital process prevented me from doing the right thing.” The responses have proven so predictable that I have developed standard scripting for my responses.
Occasionally, the data are wrong. All letters are sent after the charts are initially abstracted. The accuracy of a chart abstractor is close to 100%. Addition of a nurse reviewer and a physician reviewer will help us achieve perfection, but the cost of doing this is significant. I find that many physicians, including myself, want perfection when it gets personal, but I just can’t justify the expense. Moreover, when a physician states that the data are wrong, it is more likely that the data are correct, but the physician does not fully understand the specifications of the measure.
Fault is a more interesting response. Deliberately, our quality committee, which determines the assignment rules, has chosen to attach an attending to every single measure, even those driven by hospital staff. This is done because we feel the healthcare team needs to solve these deficiencies, and often this forces a discussion. For deficiencies that are more staff-related, we do send the letter to the physician and unit manager simultaneously. The usual response by the manager is to contact the physician, apologize, then work on a plan that will remedy the situation.
As a recent example, a nurse chose to give a medication prior to an antibiotic for pneumonia and thus missed the six-hour deadline. This resulted in a change in protocol in the ED.