Many of us in healthcare know medical errors are the third leading cause of death in the United States.
We are also aware that healthcare is a high-risk industry. But unlike other high risk-industries however, such as aviation and nuclear energy, healthcare has been too slow to adopt tools, techniques and behaviors proven to lower risk to patients. As a result, errors made by well-intentioned caregivers continue to cause unintentional harm and even death to patients.
In my last ETY blog post, I shared a medical error I was involved in that led to patient harm. I also shared how we hid that error from the patient, as well as other caregivers who worked in our hospital. It is said healthcare “buries” our medical mistakes. Fear of malpractice claims, fear of losing our license, fear of admitting we are fallible and can make a mistake; doctors are expected to be perfect, and this behavior is an unintended consequence of those unrealistic expectations. These are just a few of the reasons caregivers and hospital leaders try to hide or even downright lie when medical errors cause patient harm.
This approach, known as “deny and defend”, is a common legal and malpractice insurance strategy, not only in healthcare but in other insurance-based industries. Not only is “deny and defend” morally and ethically wrong, but in healthcare it also keeps us from learning and improving our care systems when these very unfortunate events occur. If we don’t openly talk about, and learn from our mistakes, we will never fix healthcare so that future patients don’t suffer similar harm. In our wrong-sided surgery error, no one wanted to discuss how we could have prevented that harm from happening again. All we wanted to do was bury it, hoping no one found out. And then what happened? Wrong-sided surgeries continued to occur over and over again for years afterwards.
Historically, the role of hospital risk managers has been to protect the hospital at all cost, even if it meant lying to patients and families. Refusing to answer questions, denying patients access to their medical records, not returning phone calls, or referring patients to hospital lawyers has been routine practice for many health systems. Many patients and families wait years to have their calls returned, and still fail to receive truthful answers on what really happened when there is a conversation. As many plaintiff attorneys have shared through the years, “There’s a lot of lying going on out there”. The only option patients and families often have to get their questions answered, is to hire their own lawyer and file a lawsuit against the hospital and the physician. Once both sides “lawyer up”, the only thing that matters is to win the lawsuit, regardless of the financial cost or additional suffering incurred by all stakeholders. No one wins in a medical malpractice trial.
Fortunately, some courageous health systems, hospitals and medical malpractice carriers are discovering there is a better way…
After a brief hiatus for the #IHI26Forum, and in preparation for launch of Using Stories to Influence Change in Healthcare as an Amazon eBook, we are back online! With all the repeat hits to our ETY storytelling posts, it seemed of value to put them in a collection along with some of the ‘how and why’ storytelling has become of even greater value in healthcare. Here is the link if interested in having all of the storytelling posts in one place along with new commentary. From the description:
…as long as there are patients who fall victim to preventable harm in healthcare, there are healthcare professionals who also have a story rich in learning material from the other side of the bedrail. Both sides of the patient harm story will need to be embraced by healthcare leadership in order to achieve the delivery of reliable, high-quality, safe care everyone desires. Because the numbers harmed by healthcare have at the very best plateaued, an urgent need to pick up the pace for change remains. Sharing the stories of patients and healthcare professionals on a larger and more strategic scale throughout the industry will allow others to learn vicariously from mistakes as well as successes, building upon the positive momentum found when utilizing storytelling as a medium for change. Once again, our stories can provide the guiding light leading us into a new world for healthcare—where the patient voice is welcomed, and healthcare professionals are allowed to speak their truth.
And finally, our healthcare stories also serve many masters. When patients share their story of illness, they heal. When families tell stories of loss, they grieve. When healthcare professionals relate stories of guilt or near misses, they unburden their souls and can fix what is broken in health systems, enabling them to once again care for others as intended. Freedom to tell our story has always been a way to health and happiness. Using Stories to Influence Change in Healthcare is a jumping off place for those interested in learning more about how stories are being used in healthcare, and why they hold the power over us that they do. Tips from expert storytellers on how to craft good stories, as well as a glimpse into the science of story round out this introductory collection on using stories in healthcare…
One of the highlights of our Telluride East Patient Safety Summer Camp each year is our trip to Arlington National Cemetery. The cemetery serves as a burial-place for “laying our Nation’s veterans and their family members to rest with dignity and honor.” Numerous daily honors, such as a horse-drawn caisson carrying an American flag draped casket, the firing of three rifle volleys, and the long bugler playing Taps, remind visitors of the service, sacrifice and valor displayed by those in the military protecting our freedoms.
As we walked through the cemetery, it was hard not to grasp the magnitude of the gravesites beside us. Everywhere I looked, white gravestones dotted the landscape. The tombstones seemed to go on forever…in the lower areas of the cemetery close to the main entrance, walking up the hill to Arlington House, or following the signs to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Everywhere I looked there were rows and rows of white tombstones – tens of thousands of them. Six hundred and forty-eight acres of tombstones marking burial sites with little room for much else–the cemetery is pretty much full, and needs more acreage. In fact, they recently chopped down a controversial 2 acres of trees to find a place for our more recent casualties of war. The informational brochure says the cemetery is currently the final resting place for more than 400,000 people.
400,000 people…the irony of that number struck me. That is the same number of patients who die every year due to preventable medical errors according to an article published in September 2013, A New Evidenced-based Estimate of Patient Harms Associated with Hospital Care in The Journal of Patient Safety. Lucian Leape brought some conceptual reality to the medical error crisis years ago by using the analogy of one jumbo jet crashing every day. All those white tombstones that stretched to the end of the landscape and seemed to go on forever reflected the same number of patients who die each year from things like unnecessary infections, failure to recognize or rescue, medication dosing mistakes. We fill an Arlington Cemetery every year.
We have surpassed one jumbo jet per day. Standing at the top of the hill, looking in all directions…north, south, east, west…seeing the 400,000 gravesites spread out before me, and thinking this could be a preventable medical harm cemetery for just a single year is incomprehensible and unacceptable. What does it require for others to take this national epidemic seriously? When will we see the urgency needed to create meaningful change? It is a visual all Hospital CEO’s and political leaders should be required to experience.
Many times, nothing more needs to be said. A reflective post on the Telluride blog this week from Caitlin Farrell…one of our Telluride Student Scholars who shares the gift of her story with classmates and faculty. Thank you Caitlin! Please share with your healthcare communities.
Published June 16, 2014 | By CFarrell
Yesterday was Father’s Day, 2014. I woke up before everyone else in my room. Rolling out of bed, I padded down the stairs and brewed a cup of much-needed coffee. Pouring my face over the steaming cup, I looked out my window to the inspiring landscape of endless white-capped mountains. This year marks the ninth Father’s Day that I have spent without my dad, but the mountains and my purpose this week made me feel as though he were standing there with me, sharing our cup of morning coffee, just as we used to.
After taking the gondola ride into Telluride, the students and faculty plunged into our work of expanding our knowledge in the field of patient safety. We watched a documentary outlining the tragic case of Lewis Blackman, a 15-year-old boy who died due to medication error, miscommunication, and assumptions made by his medical team. The film explored the errors in Lewis’s care that have become far too common in our medical system: the lack of communication between providers and families, the establishment of “tribes” within medicine who do not collaborate or communicate with one another, the lack of mindfulness of the providers, and the culture in which all of these errors were permitted to happen.
But what resonated with me the most were the feelings described by Lewis’s mother. She defined her experience as one of isolation and desperation. “We were like an island”, she said. There was no one there to listen to her concerns. Ironically, Lewis died as a result of being in the hospital, the one place where he could not get the medical care that he so desperately needed.
A pain hit my stomach as she said these words. My family also shared the feelings of isolation, uncertainty, and loss throughout my father’s stay in the hospital. After Lewis’s death, his mother was not contacted. Instead, she was sent materials about grieving and loss in the mail. After an egregious error occurred during my father’s medical care, a physician did not give us an apology, but a white rose by a nurse.
An interesting discussion arose after the film. Our faculty emphasized the need for physicians to partner with the families of the patients. This will create not only a team during the course of treatment, but will cultivate compassion, empathy, and trust in the case of a terrible event. I know that despite the growing number of “apology laws” that protect, and even mandate, physicians to apologize to families after catastrophic events, few physicians actually do apologize. This results in families feeling like the events were there fault. I can say from experience that this is a burden that you can carry with you for years to come.
As I got back to my room and put down my books this conversation mulled in my mind. The death of my father has given me the fuel to pursue medicine and patient safety as my career. It has instilled in me passion, energy, and determination. Yet the one thing that I have not found in the nine years since my father’s death is forgiveness. Although I do not hold any one doctor or nurse responsible for the detrimental outcome in my father’s care, I have not been able to forgive the team for what happened. I have not been able to go back to that hospital. And as I sat on my beautiful bed in the mountains, I realized that I also harbored another feeling: fear. Fear of becoming a physician who does not practice mindfulness, who does not partner with my patients, who does not apologize for my mistakes. I am afraid that despite my best intentions, I will only continue the vicious cycle. A fear that I will allow my patients to feel as though they are “on an island”.
I put away my computer and got into bed. Lying awake, I took in the gravity of the day. I am so grateful to be here at Telluride among students and faculty who share my passion in patient safety. I could not have imagined a more perfect way to spend Father’s Day.
A Day 3 tradition during the Telluride Patient Safety Educational Roundtable & Student/Resident Summer Camps has been for students and faculty to join in a team building trek up the Bear Creek trail in the San Juan mountain range of Colorado. The hike has always played an important part in the week, allowing students and faculty to collectively reflect in a relaxed, awe-inspiring environment on the conversations and concepts around patient centered care, new to some and a career choice for all. This week, the Telluride experience moved east to Washington DC, and the Bear Creek hike transformed into a crosstown journey from the Georgetown University campus on foot and Metra to the Arlington National Cemetery. While the threat of bears and the physical challenges of altitude and mountain terrain were absent, the group was left to navigate east coast summer drizzle, a big-city subway system and an unfamiliar routine to overcome together.
As we made our way across Washington DC, organic conversations between students and faculty grew throughout the largest Telluride gathering in nine years. I was fortunate to get to know a number of students on the walk to and from this national landmark, many of those conversations each deserving a blog post all their own. Like Rose Ngishu for example–a nurse and mother of four from Kenya now in Galveston, TX, and in her third year of medical school. Rose shared how she knew at 7 years old, living in a country where any healthcare was a luxury, that she wanted to become a doctor and change the conditions in her country of origin. A woman, who despite many personal obligations, continues to push stubbornly toward her goal of improving the lives of those less fortunate and become a physician.
Saturday’s hike culminated on the hill beneath Robert E. Lee’s house with Dave Mayer and Rosemary Gibson centering the group around the fact that it would take less than two years to fill Arlington National Cemetery with the victims of medical harm. Less than two years to fill a cemetery that holds over 100 years worth of US Military casualties and their family members. Rosemary then encouraged us to break up into groups of 3-4 and remember by name, if possible, patients or family members that we personally knew affected by medical harm. The group then came back together and honored those we had discussed in our smaller groups. A new Telluride tradition began this week–one that connected the head with the heart, patient with provider.
Following are a few of the names remembered on Saturday. I can only hope that the efforts of our group, all the Telluride alumni, and healthcare stakeholders working in the best interest of patients, will result in the ability to recall fewer names in the future.
Movies that address important issues can ignite strong emotions universal to all of us. Some movies make us angry, some make us laugh–others strike a nerve that motivates us to do better or join a cause. From an educational point of view, emotion generated through film and visual images can create teaching moments unachievable through traditional methodologies. When these moments are reinforced with interactive group discussion, the stories remain in the heart and the knowledge encoded in ways unique to visual and emotionally driven stimuli.
Two additional patient safety educational films that do a wonderful job of educating through our hearts and motivating through the emotional response they evoke are: First, Do No Harm® (FDNH) and The Josie King Story. Both films use true stories to motivate audiences and create lasting change so that similar mistakes do not happen again.
The film First, Do No Harm® (FDNH) helps healthcare teams navigate the complex issues we as care providers face in our efforts to deliver the best outcomes for our patients. The three part film series takes on a multitude of important topics, including:
- How systems fail
- Teamwork, handoffs and communication
- Creating just organizational cultures
- The importance of board and executive engagement in supporting frontline healthcare professionals
- Managing media coverage of medical errors
Based on incidents drawn from real malpractice claims, the First, Do No Harm® series presents the dramatic story of how a healthcare community responds when a healthy pregnancy turns to tragedy as a result of a series of medical failures. Through one expectant mother’s journey, the film shares the spectrum of safety and ethics issues that can arise in a busy healthcare system. The series consists of three sequential case studies, each approximately 20 minutes in length. The film also includes commentary from leading experts in healthcare and other industries, as well as facilitators’ guides developed by risk management educators that detail scene-by-scene learning objectives and discussion points.
The second outstanding patient safety educational film is The Josie King Story. In 2001, Sorrel King, Josie’s mother, addressed the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI) conference. It was the first time Sorrel had spoken publicly about the medical errors that led to Josie’s death. Captured on film, Sorrel’s sharing of Josie’s story and her powerful educational insights have inspired caregivers and hospital administrators to take up the cause of patient safety in their daily work. The film showcases a mother who asks medical professionals to look, listen, and communicate in order to create a culture of patient safety. According to the Josie King Foundation, over 1,200 healthcare institutions around the world use this educational movie as a training tool to emphasize the importance of communication and teamwork in patient safety.
The educational value of narrative and reflective learning is well documented in the literature. These educational powers are especially true in healthcare when teaching health science students and resident physicians risk reduction strategies in the provision of safe, high quality patient care. Wall of Silence, written by Rosemary Gibson, demonstrates this educational power extremely well. The book shares numerous cases where medical error caused significant, many times fatal, patient harm. Unlike traditional medical case reviews discussed in M&M’s or written for journal publication, the book takes a different approach to these cases and shares through interviews what patients and family members expected from caregivers after good intentioned care caused harm. The take-away from these patient and family interviews highlight five areas of need:
1. The truth
3. An apology when appropriate
5. Commitment (and action) to change the system to protect others from similar harm.
Patients and family members are great teachers and educators. Lessons learned from these stories through the patient’s voice are powerful teaching tools that survive the educational decay commonly seen with traditional teaching methodologies. While these are all tragic stories, there is much to be learned when we as caregivers are willing to hear what our patients tell us and engage in truthful and transparent discussion. As Rosemary told me many years ago, the best teachers find ways to connect the brain to the heart and leave a lasting educational imprint on their students.