Yet another case of wrong-side surgery, this one at Boston’s Beth-Israel Deaconess Hospital. Though CEO Paul Levy does a nice job discussing the case on his blog, I’ll focus on two aspects Paul neglects: the role of production pressures in errors, and the tension between “no blame” and accountability.
First, I hope you’ll read Paul’s piece (on his always-interesting blog), which includes a courageous memo he and BI-D’s chief of quality Kenneth Sands sent to the entire community describing the case (within the boundaries created by HIPAA). In laying out the “how could this happen,” they say this:
It was a hectic day, as many are. Just beforehand, the physician was distracted by thoughts of how best to approach the case, and the team was busily addressing last-minute details.
Surprised? Hardly. How many days in my hospital and yours don’t look like that?
The concept of “production pressure” is an important one in safety. In a nutshell, every industry – whether it produces CABGs or widgets – has to deal with the tension between safety and throughput. The issue is not whether they experience this tension – that would be like asking if they operate under the Laws of Gravity. Rather, it is how they balance these twin demands.
When my kids were little, they loved going to the International House of Pancakes (IHOP), particularly the one about 15 minutes from my house and a few minutes from San Francisco International Airport (SFO). I personally find the food at IHOP a bit gross, but being a dutiful dad, we would trudge to the IHOP nearly every weekend.
Unfortunately, on most weekend mornings, the line extended 50 feet into the parking lot. Seeing that, I’d push the kids to move on to a decent place for a civilized breakfast. “No, dad, we wanna stay. And the line really moves fast!”
They were right. No matter how long the line, it seemed like we were seated in a matter of minutes, barely enough time to watch more than a couple of 747s fly overhead on their way to Hawaii. How did they manage this kind of throughput?
Once we sat down in the booth, the answer became clear. We were handed our menus within a few seconds. Less than a minute later, a waitress asked for our order. The food was delivered within 6 or 7 minutes. When I paused to catch my breath, the waitress was there. “Is there anything else I can get you this morning?”, she asked helpfully. Any hesitation… and the check instantly appeared, to be settled at the front register. Another family was seated the nanosecond we rose from our seats.
The point is that a business like IHOP – with its relatively low profit margin per customer – is all about production: everything is designed to get you in and out promptly. But production carries a cost: with haste sometimes come mistakes. I remember many times when our cute little syrup well was filled with four boysenberry syrups, rather than the appropriate assortment (maple, strawberry, blueberry, and boysenberry). But that seemed a small price to pay for speed.
In other words, in the ever-present battle between production and reliably getting it right, production wins at the IHOP.
As I mentioned, the South San Francisco IHOP is on the flight path of San Francisco International Airport. The tension between production and safety is particularly acute at SFO, since its two main runways are 738 feet apart (the picture at left is an actual SFO landing, with a bit of an optical illusion. But not much of one – the runways are really close).
The FAA has inviolable rules about throughput, designed to ensure that safety is defended at all costs. For example, when the fog rolls in and the cloud cover falls to 3000 feet (which happens all the time during the summer), one of the two runways is closed, not only gumming up SFO’s works but those of the entire US air traffic control system. And, whatever the weather, planes cannot land more often than one per minute.
In other words, in the aviation industry, in the battle between production and safety, safety wins. And aviation’s remarkable safety record is the result.
I’ve used this IHOP/SFO metaphor many times in speeches to hospital staff and leaders over the past few years, and usually end it by asking audiences: “In its approach to production and safety, does your hospital look more like the IHOP or SFO?” Although things have gotten a bit better over the last couple of years, the answers still run about 10:1 in favor of the IHOP.
So the fact that is was “a hectic day” is a latent error. I’m not naïve – fixing it involves setting limits on production, which slows down the works. And that costs money! Turns out, so does closing a runway. But in aviation, this is a price people are willing to pay for safety.
Will Paul, or any other bold and visionary CEO, commit to paying that price in his or her organization? Will the docs, who can care for more patients (oh yeah, and make more money) from each case? Probably not. But until we all make different choices, it is important to see the “hectic day” at Beth Israel not as a random Act of God but as a conscious choice that prioritizes production over safety. Every day. Virtually everywhere.
The other issue I found fascinating about the Beth Israel case was the discussion about the lack of safety procedures that allowed this error to occur. Again, quoting from the Levy/Sands letter,
In the midst of all this [frenzy], two things happened: First, no one noticed that the wrong side was being prepared for the procedure. Second, the procedure began without performing a “time out,” that last-minute check when the whole team confirms “right patient, right procedure, right side.” The procedure went ahead.
I’ve discussed the tension between “no blame” and accountability in a previous posting – I continue to find it one of the most interesting and difficult issues in the patient safety field. It would be good to know the context here. Was everybody (surgeon, anesthesiologist, OR nurses) distracted? Was this was the first time any of them had forgotten to perform the Time Out? If so, this would strike me as a “slip”, an honest mistake deserving no blame and an emphasis on designing a more reliable system.
But what if this was a surgeon who always seemed to “forget” the Time Out? (Believe me, they’re out there, and all of them think wrong-site surgery only happens to those other, more careless, surgeons.) To me, willfully ignoring a sensible safety rule (as I believe the Time Out to be, perhaps embedded the more robust WHO-style checklist, as demonstrated here) is not a “no blame” event, but rather one that screams out for accountability.
At some point, systems are people. In the old days – before the modern patient safety movement – nobody thought much about systems, and the fundamental problem was blaming individuals when bad systems were at fault. That was wrong, and got us nowhere in our quest to keep patients safe.
But this is now a decade later, and we do have some pretty good systems for preventing errors, systems that can always be subverted by recalcitrant providers. In such circumstances, the failure is not that of the system but that of the individual, and I believe they should be handled accordingly. Getting this balance right is really tricky, as many of the dozens of comments in response to the Levy blog, as well as the Boston Globe article on the case, illustrate.
Paul Levy ends his post with an eloquent and passionate bit of feedback from one of his Beth Israel-Deaconess board members:
“Protocols are meant to make procedures insensitive to distraction and busy days. These are inadequate and embarrassing excuses. The ‘culture of safety’ has not permeated the front lines. Culture of safety training, and application of advances in safety science, I believe, are critical to preventing the type of complex harm that occurs in hospitals. Not just for new staff. For everyone who wears a BIDMC badge, or is affiliated as a physician to the hospital. I know that this is a new science, and a new way of doing business, but this event might just give that leverage needed for change.”
Paul goes on to say:
While we explore lots of ideas, one already in my mind and that of this Board member would be to make a video with the actual people – doctors, nurses, surgical techs – who were in the OR at the time to explain what they saw and felt and what they learned from the experience. While they might be in too much distress to do this right now, they might agree over time, and their doing so would create a powerful message at every orientation, at nurses and departmental meetings, and conferences… Transparency as opportunity, social marketing. It would get people talking, and thinking.
I know the arguments against being punitive, but if this was a surgeon who habitually ignored the regulatory and ethical obligation to perform a Time Out, I would go ahead and produce the video as the board member suggests. The difference is that the surgeon would not only be discussing how badly he feels about the error, but also describing what he did during his one-month suspension from the OR. I’m guessing that this small addition would make the video even more memorable.
At some point, these safety rules will need teeth or they’re not rules, only suggestions. And, in many cases, suggestions won’t prevent devastating medical errors.
This is tough stuff, and I’d welcome your thoughts.