Designed to Harm


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.

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?

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?

The Answer: An Unfortunate “No”

For the record, I hate working nights, abhor working weekends, and resent working holidays. But the thing I’d hate even more than working nights, weekends, and holidays would be being a patient admitted during a night, weekend, or holiday. To understand why, I have to look no further than my hospital parking lot. During bankers’ hours, I can barely find a parking spot on the top floor of our multilevel parking structure.

Fast-forward to Saturday, and I have my pick of empty football fields’ worth of spots on all floors. Ditto Sundays, nights, and holidays.

Why is it that nationally, a collectively near-trillion-dollar hospital enterprise finds it acceptable to effectively shutter itself for a quarter to a third of the week? Especially when doing so seems to counter their primary mission of providing safe, timely, effective, efficient, equitable, and patient-centered care.

The Weekend Effect

There are, of course, economic and operational reasons to downshift during off hours—some hospitals don’t have the elective procedures to run operating rooms seven days a week, and very few patients want to have their elective colonoscopy at 11 p.m. or their chemotherapy during Thanksgiving dinner. However, in most cases, the reasons for doing so center on hospital staff and physician satisfaction. Most us of just don’t like working off hours. As a result, studies have shown significantly less access to such high-level care as coronary angiography and percutaneous coronary intervention on weekends.2,3

And the effects of this “weekend effect” can be devastating.

A recent paper in the New England Journal of Medicine reported that for every 1,000 patients admitted with a myocardial infarction on a weekend, nine more would die than a comparable group admitted during the week.4 Their offense? Having the misfortune to get ill on a Saturday morning. The authors concluded that this higher mortality was secondary to a lower rate of invasive cardiac procedures, presumably because they were less available. And the weekend effect isn’t just limited to coronary care. Poorer outcomes, including higher mortality rates, have been reported for weekend admissions to the neonatal ICU and adult ICU, as well as admission for epiglottitis, ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysms, and pulmonary embolism.5,6,7

So let’s connect the dots: A system designed with inequal access to lifesaving therapies and appropriate staffing results in worse outcomes, more harm, more deaths.

To be clear, 98,000 people don’t die every year because of my disdain for working nights and weekends. This is a much deeper problem that hinges on many unsatisfactory systems working unsatisfactorily in tandem (e.g. see the other five IOM domains of quality care). Furthermore, I don’t mean to suggest that hospitalists necessarily have a lot of say in cardiac catheterization schedules. Yet we do control our own systems of care—how many patients we admit and cover during a shift, how strongly we advocate for timely testing and consultation, how we staff weekends and cover patients at night.

And, more and more, we are in a position to enhance the care delivery systems of the hospital and its providers that surround us. With that comes a responsibility to ensure that these systems are highly functioning and equitable, regardless of the time of day, day of the week.

If we are going to fundamentally enhance the quality of care, then we have to design safer systems of care. It will take time and resources to alter many of our bruised systems of care, but we can begin by at least ensuring equity in how we deliver care at our own institutions. That is, unless we are comfortable with a system perfectly designed to harm. TH

Dr. Glasheen is associate professor of medicine at the University of Colorado Denver, where he serves as director of the Hospital Medicine Program and the Hospitalist Training Program, and as associate program director of the Internal Medicine Residency Program.


  1. Institute of Medicine (IOM). Crossing the Quality Chasm: A New Health System for the 21st Century. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press; 2001.
  2. Bell CM, Redelmeier DA. Waiting for urgent procedures on the weekend among emergently hospitalized patients. Am J Med. 2004:117(3):175-181.
  3. Magid DJ, Wang Y, Herrin J, et al. Relationship between time of day, day of week, timeliness of reperfusion, and in-hospital mortality for patients with acute ST-segment elevation myocardial infarction. JAMA. 2005;294(7):803-812.
  4. Kostis WJ, Demissie K, Marcella SW, Shao YH, Wilson AC, Moreyra AE. Weekend versus weekday admission and mortality from myocardial infarction. N Eng J Med. 2007;356 (11):1099-1109.
  5. Hendry RA. The weekend—a dangerous time to be born? Br J Obstet Gynaecol. 1981;88(12):1200-1203.
  6. Barnett MJ, Kaboli PJ, Sirio CA, Rosenthal GE. Day of the week of intensive care admission and patient outcomes: a multisite regional evaluation. Med Care. 2002;40(6):530-539.
  7. Bell CM, Redelmeier DA. Mortality among patients admitted to hospitals on weekends as compared with weekdays. N Eng J Med. 2001;345(9):663-668.

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