Pornography. There can be few better hooks for readers than that. Just typing the word is a bit uncomfortable. As is, I imagine, reading it. But it’s effective, and likely why you’ve made it to word 37 of my column—34 words further than you usually get, I imagine.
“What about pornography?” you ask with bated breath. “What could pornography possibly have to do with hospital medicine?” your mind wonders. “Is this the column that (finally) gets Glasheen fired?” the ambulance chaser in you titillates.
By now, you’ve no doubt heard the famous Potter Stewart definition of pornography: “I know it when I see it.” That’s how the former U.S. Supreme Court justice described his threshold for recognizing pornography. It was made famous in a 1960s decision about whether a particular movie scene was protected by the 1st Amendment right to free speech or, indeed, a pornographic obscenity to be censured. Stewart, who clearly recognized the need to “define” pornography, also recognized the inherent challenges in doing so. The I-know-it-when-I-see-it benchmark is, of course, flawed, but I defy you to come up with a better definition.
Quality Is, of Course…
I was thinking about pornography (another discomforting phrase to type) recently—and Potter Stewart’s challenge in defining it, specifically—when I was asked about quality in healthcare. The query, which occurred during a several-hour, mind-numbing meeting (is there another type of several-hour meeting?), was “What is quality?” The question, laced with hostility and dripping with antagonism, was posed by a senior physician and directed pointedly at me. Indignantly, I cleared my throat, mentally stepping onto my pedestal to ceremoniously topple this academic egghead with my erudite response.
“Well, quality is, of course,” I confidently retorted, the “of course” added to demonstrate my moral superiority, “the ability to … uhhh, you see … ummmm, you know.” At which point I again cleared my throat not once, not twice, but a socially awkward three times before employing the timed-honored, full-body shock-twitch that signifies that you’ve just received an urgent vibrate page (faked, of course) and excused myself from the meeting, never to return.
The reality is that I struggle to define quality. Like Chief Justice Stewart, I think I know quality when I see it, but more precise definitions can be elusive.
It’s Not My Job
Just this morning, I read a news release from a respected physician group trumpeting the fact that their advocacy resulted in the federal government reducing the number of quality data-point requirements in their final rule for accountable-care organizations (ACOs) from 66 to 33. Trumpeting? Is this a good thing? Should we be supporting fewer quality measures? The article quoted a physician leader saying that the original reporting requirements were too burdensome. Too burdensome to whom? My guess is the recipients of our care, often referred to as our patients, wouldn’t categorize quality assurance as “too burdensome.”
I was at another meeting recently in which a respected colleague related her take on the physician role in improving quality. “I don’t think that’s a physician’s job. That’s what we have a quality department for,” she noted. “It’s just too expensive, time-consuming, and boring for physicians to do that kind of work.”