For all the negative press of late, car manufacturers understand safety.
A System Not So Safe
Contrast this to healthcare, in which 10% of patients will suffer a serious, preventable, adverse event during their hospital stay.1 Read that sentence again. That’s 10%; that’s preventable
In medicine, we still largely employ unsafe systems in which even the best doctors can, and do, hurt patients. Sure, we have made strides in this arena (oxygen tubing that only works if hooked up properly, smart pumps that avert IV dosing errors, CO2 monitors to detect proper endotracheal tube placement), but remarkably, in this era of patient safety, we still utilize systems that largely depend on the heroism of the individual.
As physicians, we are famously autonomous and value our professional independence, even to the degree that it might harm patients. We generally eschew standardization, believing that each patient is inherently different. In fact, the thrill of the improvisational theater that follows every patient’s chief compliant is one of the great satisfiers in medicine. We love that feeling that comes from sleuthing each case, deftly enacting a plan of action to shepherd the patient to health.
To suggest following protocols, guidelines, and checklists is derisively dismissed as “cookbook medicine.” To work in teams in which certain tasks are delegated to others is seen as weakness—we don’t need a system that utilizes a pharmacist; rather, we should know the doses of all medicines, their interactions, and the effect of renal and liver impairment on their clearance. To suggest otherwise is an insult to our Oslerian roots. To examine our errors, our system breakdowns, our patient harms is anathema to our practice, an admission of failure.
The result is that most of us continue to toil in systems that have become exponentially unsafe as healthcare has become more complex. Today, we still have a system that will more or less allow us to kill a patient by doing nothing more than forgetting the letter “g.” I can go to my hospital today and intend to write “4 grams of magnesium sulfate (MgSO4)” and inadvertently forget the “g” in “Mg.” This could result in an order for a lethal dose of morphine sulfate (MSO4). It’s that easy to hurt a patient. Now, you might say that would never happen, because the pharmacy would catch it. And this is likely. But is it guaranteed? Can you 100% ensure it wouldn’t happen? Consider that nearly 20% of medication doses administered in a hospital are done so incorrectly.2 Nearly 1 in 5. This is the type of system we are employing to stop this lethal overdose. Is this system, which depends on another human to prevent an error, foolproof, or just a snare waiting to prove you the fool?
This represents our opportunity. As hospitalists, the hospital is our tapestry, our system of care, our responsibility. Few others are as well-positioned to ensure that the systems that envelop our patients are highly functional, reliable, and safe. This will take work—work that will feel burdensome, underappreciated, undercompensated. And, fully recognizing that none of us went into medicine to become systems engineers, this will be hard.
However, if not us, who? Who will ensure that our fathers, our mothers, our children will be as safe in the hospital as they are on the drive to the hospital? 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.