Hospitalists Should Make Commitment to Improve Healthcare Safety


"Checklist Doctor" Peter J. Pronovost, MD, PhD, FCCM, speaks to thousands of hospitalists at HM15 .

"Checklist Doctor" Peter J. Pronovost, MD, PhD, FCCM, speaks to thousands of hospitalists at HM15. Image Credit: Manuel Noguera

Peter Pronovost, MD, PhD, FCCM, knows how to deliver a great talk. It is no wonder he is highly sought after and was asked to speak at the plenary for SHM’s annual meeting. Dr. Pronovost, also known as the “Checklist Doctor,” knows how to combine just the right amount of sadness, inspiration, and humor to make his audience feel motivated and compelled to DO something. And, in fact, he implores you—DO something.

Most of us feel excited and inspired during the annual meeting. But those feelings serve little purpose unless we translate them into actions that will make the medical industry a better place for clinicians to work and for patients to receive care. As Dr. Pronovost said, “We are the only hope that the healthcare system has of improving quality and safety.

He was inspired years ago by the watershed event that will forever be imprinted upon Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, the preventable death of 18-month-old Josie King on Feb. 22, 2001. Years after the event, her mother, Sorrel King, a passionate patient safety advocate, wanted to know if hospitals are any safer than they were the day that Josie died. She wanted to know what patient safety experts at Hopkins had done to ensure there would not be another Josie King story.

Unfortunately, many of us still believe that we are personally unable to make complex systems safer for patients. Many of us still believe that patients and the systems they traverse are too complex, unpredictable, unreliable, or noncompliant.

Patients and their families consistently voice similar desires after they have suffered preventable harm. They want to know what happened, why it happened, what it means for them, and what will be done to prevent it from happening again.1 The latter question is one I am frequently asked by patients and their families at my hospital. “What are you going to do to make sure this does not happen again?”

I would venture to guess most hospitalists have been responsible for some type of preventable patient harm during their careers. We work in complex, high-volume, unpredictable, and continuously changing environments. Many of the patients and families in our care are new to us and are with us for only short periods of time. Those of us who have been responsible for preventable patient harm know that it is an unforgettable moment in time that can weigh upon your conscious. And, of course, we all want to do something to make sure it does not happen again.

That is exactly what patients and their families expect of all of us—to DO something—and they should.

But this can be an overwhelming responsibility, especially when the root causes of harm are difficult either to identify or to fix—such as a miscommunication, a diagnostic error, or an inadequate handoff.

Which gets me back to Dr. Pronovost giving a great talk. His appeal to our audience of about 3,000 hospitalists was to DO something. To make the healthcare system improve quality and safety for future patients. To not wait until we or our colleagues are involved in a preventable harm event. To do something, anything, now, that contributes to safer care, today and every day going forward.

He ended his talk with “I will….” Dr. Pronovost (and I would venture to guess patients and their families) wants each of us to fill in the blank with a statement of personal accountability for action. Unfortunately, many of us still believe that we are personally unable to make complex systems safer for patients. Many of us still believe that patients and the systems they traverse are too complex, unpredictable, unreliable, or noncompliant.

The truth is, patients and systems are indeed complex, unpredictable, unreliable, and noncompliant. The further truth is, the only way to make care safer is for each of us to start with a collective shared mental model that we can make it better—and for each of us to commit to personal accountability for action.

My “I Will”

So, while I really enjoyed Dr. Pronovost’s talk, what I enjoyed even more was reading the section in last month’s edition of The Hospitalist in which about a half dozen hospitalists interviewed after the plenary accepted the challenge of filling in the blank “I will….” A few excerpts:

  • “I will let them know that everything is possible…”
  • “I will improve healthcare…”
  • “[I will] make sure the patient is heard…”

By a simple proclamation of personal accountability, a mere thousand hospitalists attending an annual meeting can collectively and progressively change the safety of healthcare in thousands of hospitals around the country. It starts with thinking we can do it and publicly committing to the journey. Although we are still a relatively new specialty, we have permeated almost every hospital in the country, and we have outpaced the growth of any specialty in the history of modern medicine. We are perfectly poised to be the safety change agents for every hospital system. As Margaret Meade famously said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has….”

So don’t delay. Whether or not you had the good fortune of being inspired at the SHM annual meeting, each of us owes it to our patients to commit to improving the safety of healthcare and paving the future of hospital care. Get out your pen, craft a commitment now, follow through with it, and make hospitals safer tomorrow than they were yesterday.

I will…

Dr. Scheurer is a hospitalist and chief quality officer at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. She is physician editor of The Hospitalist. Email her at [email protected].


  1. Gallagher TH, Waterman AD, Ebers AG, Fraser VJ, Levinson W. Patients’ and physicians’ attitudes regarding the disclosure of medical errors. JAMA. 2003;289(8):1001-1007.

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