2 Kidneys vs. 100,000 Lives

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PAUL LEVY

First published on [Not] Running a Hospital

This story about a kidney transplant mix-up in California is bound to get lots of coverage. It is these extraordinary cases that get public attention. I am sure it will lead to a whole new set of national rules designed to keep such a thing from happening.

Of course, such rules already exist, and it was likely a lapse in them that led to this result.

Nonetheless, we will “bolt on” a new set of requirements that, in themselves, will likely create the possibility for yet a new form of error to occur.

This kind of coverage and response is a spin-off from the “rule of rescue” that dominates decisions about medical treatment. We find the one-off, extreme case and devote excessive energy to solving it. In the meantime, we let go untreated the fact that tens of thousands of people are killed and maimed in hospitals every year.

Those numbers are constantly disputed by the profession. To this day, many doctors do not believe the Institute of Medicine’s studies that documented the number of unnecessary deaths per year.

And you never hear anyone talking about this 2010 report by the Office of the Inspector General, which concluded:

An estimated 1.5 percent of Medicare beneficiaries experienced an event that contributed to their deaths, which projects to 15,000 patients in a single month.

As the IOM notes, “Between the health care we have and the care we could have lies not just a gap, but a chasm.”

There is an underlying belief on the part of policy makers and public and private payers that the focus on quality is best addressed through payment reform. Let me state as clearly as I possibly can: That is wrong. It is a classic example of the old expression: “When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Changes in payment rate structures, penalties for “never events,” and the like can cause some changes to occur. Their main political advantage is that they give the impression of action, and their major financial advantage is a shift in risk from government and private payers to health care providers.

But these are gross tools and will have unintended consequences. More importantly, they do not get to the heart of the problem, the manner in which work is organized in the highly complex environment of hospitals and physician practices. This is an environment in which ineffective work-arounds — instead of front-line driven process redesign — are the usual answer to obstacles in patient care.

They do not address the unmet education needs of doctors-in-training, training that is a throw-back to a cottage industry in which each person is expected to be an artist, relying on his or her creativity, intuition, and experience when taking care of a patient. The resulting lack of standardization — the high degree of practice variation — creates an environment that is inimical to process improvement based on scientific methods.

They do not address the documented advantages of engaging patients in the design and delivery of care, nor the power that such engagement brings to both doctors and patients.

Add to this the sociology of dehumanization in medical schools documented by Linda Pololi, and you have a stewpot of well-intentioned people destined to kill and maim others.

It is up to the medical profession, not the politicians or the insurance companies, to change this. First, though, they have to be willing to acknowledge that problems exist, that the current level of harm is not a statistically irreducible amount. The need to put aside the usual responses — “the data are wrong” — “our patients are sicker” — “our care is the best in the country” — and have the intellectual modesty to recognize that the real work has just begun.

To the extent the medical profession continues to abdicate responsibility, the more will step in politicians, regulators, and payers to do it for them. If you are a doctor and already feeling a lack of control over your professional life and your relationship with your patients, just wait.

I have previously quoted experts on this field, but the most cogent imperative remains the one provided by Ethel Merman:

Now what kind of an attitude is that, ‘these things happen?’ They only happen because this whole country is just full of people who, when these things happen, they just say ‘these things happen,’ and that’s why they happen! We gotta have control of what happens to us.”

Paul Levy is the former CEO of a large Boston hospital. He writes at [Not Running A Hospital].


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