If every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets …
And if 15 million patients are harmed every year from medical care …
And if as many as 98,000 people die every year due to medical errors in hospitals …
Then what does that say about the system we have designed?
A System Designed to Competently Hurt Many
By now you’ve no doubt heard, read, and possibly even uttered the above facts and figures yourself. I think we all have our opinions about the veracity of these numbers, but I don’t think any of us would argue with the sentiment. The U.S. healthcare system comprises the most competent, compassionate, well-meaning, and caring professionals on this planet—who harm, maim, and kill countless people every year.
What a discomforting paradox.
Equity: The Overlooked Quality Domain
Many years back, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) published a list of six “domains” of healthcare quality. You’ve no doubt stumbled across the IOM’s Safe … Timely … Effective … Efficient … Equitable … Patient-Centered mnemonic recipe—STEEEP—for high-quality care.1 In fact, it’s hard to read a journal, attend a medical presentation, or open a local newspaper without finding reference to these domains. It’s all the rage to talk about wrong-site surgery (safe), access to care (timely), comparative-effectiveness research (effective), lean concepts (efficient), and individualized medicine (patient-centered). However, the sixth domain often seems to get the Jan Brady treatment—minimized, marginalized, and oft-forgotten.
The IOM defines equitable care as that which “does not vary in quality because of personal characteristics such as gender, ethnicity, geographic location, and socioeconomic status.”1 To be sure, there is some hum at the national level about issues of equity, especially around healthcare coverage for all. And this is important. However, what appears lost in the rant surrounding the inherent inequities in our tiered health insurance system is that we have blantant inequalities baked into the everyday machinery of our hospitals. And they affect all, regardless of skin color, gender, or insurance status.
Think for a moment about your hospital. Are the type, level, and access to care equal at all times? Does the level of care change when the streetlights come on? How about on weekends and holidays? Do your operating rooms run on Saturdays and Sundays? Can patients get chemotherapy on the weekends? Does your hospital alter its nursing staff ratios after hours? Can you get an ultrasound at midnight? How about a urology or neurosurgery consult at 2 a.m.? How about getting interventional radiology to place an IVC filter on a holiday?
Now scratch a bit closer to home. Does your hospitalist group downstaff on weekends and holidays, even though the volumes probably warrant more coverage? Are your night providers part of your group, or are they moonlighters? Do your after-hours providers cross-cover and admit a reasonable number of patients, or are they frequently overwhelmed? Do they cover patients or admit for services that they don’t typically care for during the day (e.g. ICU, neurosurgical, subspecialty cardiology or oncology patients)? For the intensely ill patients admitted to U.S. hospitals today, should the type and availability of care differ when it’s delivered at 3 p.m. or 3 a.m., Sunday or Monday?
Disregarding the macro-inequities in our societal approach to healthcare, can we even ensure equitable care within our own hospital walls 24 hours a day, seven days a week?