How to Stop Hospitals From Killing Us
By Marty Makary | The Wall Street Journal
Fri, Sep 21, 2012
When there is a plane crash in the U.S., even a minor one, it makes headlines. There is a thorough federal investigation, and the tragedy often yields important lessons for the aviation industry. Pilots and airlines thus learn how to do their jobs more safely.
The world of American medicine is far deadlier: Medical mistakes kill enough people each week to fill four jumbo jets. But these mistakes go largely unnoticed by the world at large, and the medical community rarely learns from them. The same preventable mistakes are made over and over again, and patients are left in the dark about which hospitals have significantly better (or worse) safety records than their peers.
As doctors, we swear to do no harm. But on the job we soon absorb another unspoken rule: to overlook the mistakes of our colleagues. The problem is vast. U.S. surgeons operate on the wrong body part as often as 40 times a week. Roughly a quarter of all hospitalized patients will be harmed by a medical error of some kind. If medical errors were a disease, they would be the sixth leading cause of death in America—just behind accidents and ahead of Alzheimer’s. The human toll aside, medical errors cost the U.S. health-care system tens of billions a year. Some 20% to 30% of all medications, tests and procedures are unnecessary, according to research done by medical specialists, surveying their own fields. What other industry misses the mark this often?
It does not have to be this way. A new generation of doctors and patients is trying to achieve greater transparency in the health-care system, and new technology makes it more achievable than ever before.
I encountered the disturbing closed-door culture of American medicine on my very first day as a student at one of Harvard Medical School’s prestigious affiliated teaching hospitals. Wearing a new white medical coat that was still creased from its packaging, I walked the halls marveling at the portraits of doctors past and present. On rounds that day, members of my resident team repeatedly referred to one well-known surgeon as “Dr. Hodad.” I hadn’t heard of a surgeon by that name. Finally, I inquired. “Hodad,” it turned out, was a nickname. A fellow student whispered: “It stands for Hands of Death and Destruction.”
Stunned, I soon saw just how scary the works of his hands were. His operating skills were hasty and slipshod, and his patients frequently suffered complications. This was a man who simply should not have been allowed to touch patients. But his bedside manner was impeccable (in fact, I try to emulate it to this day). He was charming. Celebrities requested him for operations. His patients worshiped him. When faced with excessive surgery time and extended hospitalizations, they just chalked up their misfortunes to fate.
Dr. Hodad’s popularity was no aberration. As I rotated through other hospitals during my training, I learned that many hospitals have a “Dr. Hodad” somewhere on staff (sometimes more than one). In a business where reputation is everything, doctors who call out other doctors can be targeted. I’ve seen whistleblowing doctors suddenly assigned to more emergency calls, given fewer resources or simply badmouthed and discredited in retaliation. For me, I knew the ramifications if I sounded the alarm over Dr. Hodad: I’d be called into the hospital chairman’s office, a dread scenario if I ever wanted a job. So, as a rookie, I kept my mouth shut. Like the other trainees, I just told myself that my 120-hour weeks were about surviving to become a surgeon one day, not about fixing medicine’s culture.
Hospitals as a whole also tend to escape accountability, with excessive complication rates even at institutions that the public trusts as top-notch. Very few hospitals publish statistics on their performance, so how do patients pick one? As an informal exercise throughout my career, I’ve asked patients how they decided to come to the hospital where I was working (Georgetown, Johns Hopkins, D.C. General Hospital, Harvard and others). Among their answers: “Because you’re close to home”; “You guys treated my dad when he died”; “I figured it must be good because you have a helicopter.” You wouldn’t believe the number of patients who have told me that the deciding factor for them was parking.
There is no reason for patients to remain in the dark like this. Change can start with five relatively simple—but crucial—reforms.
Every hospital should have an online informational “dashboard” that includes its rates for infection, readmission (what we call “bounce back”), surgical complications and “never event” errors (mistakes that should never occur, like leaving a surgical sponge inside a patient). The dashboard should also list the hospital’s annual volume for each type of surgery that it performs (including the percentage done in a minimally invasive way) and patient satisfaction scores.
A survey of New Yorkers found that approximately 60% look up a restaurant’s “performance ratings” before going there. If you won’t sit down for a meal before checking Zagat’s or Yelp, why shouldn’t you be able to do the same thing when your life is at stake?
Nothing makes hospitals shape up more quickly than this kind of public reporting. In 1989, the first year that New York’s hospitals were required to report heart-surgery death rates, the death rate by hospital ranged from 1% to 18%—a huge gap. Consumers were finally armed with useful data. They could ask: “Why have a coronary artery bypass graft operation at a place where you have a 1-in-6 chance of dying compared with a hospital with a 1-in-100 chance of dying?”
Instantly, New York heart hospitals with high mortality rates scrambled to improve; death rates declined by 83% in six years. Management at these hospitals finally asked staff what they had to do to make care safer. At some hospitals, the surgeons said they needed anesthesiologists who specialized in heart surgery; at others, nurse practitioners were brought in. At one hospital, the staff reported that a particular surgeon simply wasn’t fit to be operating. His mortality rate was so high that it was skewing the hospital’s average. Administrators ordered him to stop doing heart surgery. Goodbye, Dr. Hodad.
Safety Culture Scores
Imagine that a surgeon is about to make an incision to remove fluid from a patient’s right lung. Suddenly, a nurse breaks the silence. “Wait. Are we doing the right or the left chest? Because it says here left, but that looks like the right side.” The surgery was, indeed, supposed to be on the left lung, but an intern had prepped the wrong side. I was that doctor, and that nurse saved us all from making a terrible error. It isn’t every hospital where that nurse would have felt confident speaking up—but it’s this sort of cultural factor that is so important to safety.