If anyone knows whether a hospital is safe, it’s the people who work there. So my colleagues and I at Johns Hopkins, led by J. Bryan Sexton, administered an anonymous survey of doctors, nurses, technicians and other employees at 60 U.S. hospitals. We found that at one-third of them, most employees believed the teamwork was bad. These aren’t hospitals where you or I want to receive care or see our family members receive care. At other hospitals, by contrast, an impressive 99% of the staff reported good teamwork.
These results correlated strongly with infection rates and patient outcomes. Good teamwork meant safer care. The public needs to have access to such information for every hospital in America.Cameras
It may come as a surprise to patients, but doctors aren’t very good at complying with well-established best practices in their fields. One New England Journal of Medicine study found that only half of all care follows evidence-based guidelines when applicable. Fortunately, there is a technology that could work wonders to improve compliance: cameras.
Cameras are already being used in health care, but usually no video is made. Reviewing tapes of cardiac catheterizations, arthroscopic surgery and other procedures could be used for peer-based quality improvement. Video would also serve as a more substantive record for future doctors. The notes in a patient’s chart are often short, and they can’t capture a procedure the way a video can.
Doug Rex of Indiana University—one of the most respected gastroenterologists in the world—decided to use video recording to check the thoroughness of colonoscopies being performed by doctors in his practice. A thorough colonoscopy requires meticulous scrutiny of every nook and cranny of the colon. Doctors tend to rush through them; as a result, many cancers and precancerous polyps are missed and manifest years later—at later stages.
Without telling his partners, Dr. Rex began reviewing videotapes of their procedures, measuring the time and assigning a quality score. After assessing 100 procedures, he announced to his partners that he would be timing and scoring the videos of their future procedures (even though he had already been doing this). Overnight, things changed radically. The average length of the procedures increased by 50%, and the quality scores by 30%. The doctors performed better when they knew someone was checking their work.
The same sort of intervention has been used for hand washing. A few years ago, Long Island’s North Shore University Hospital had a dismal compliance rate with hand washing—under 10%. After installing cameras at hand-washing stations, compliance rose to over 90% and stayed there.
Following Dr. Rex’s camera study, he did a follow-up, asking patients if they would like a copy of their procedure video. An overwhelming 81% said yes, and 64% were willing to pay for it. Patients are hungry for transparency.
Sue, a young accountant, came to my office complaining of abdominal pain. She wasn’t sure what was causing it. She offered various theories: “Could this be from my Bikram yoga?” “Did my late-night ice cream cause the pain?” “Does having unprotected sex have anything to do with it?” Throughout her visit, I took notes. When we were done, she looked down at them suspiciously.
“What did you write about me?” she asked.
She was concerned that I thought she was either nuts or an ice-cream addict. In the course of our conversation, I also learned that she wasn’t quite sure why I was recommending an ultrasound, though I thought I had told her.
I decided to start dictating my notes with the patient listening in at the end of his or her visit. “I also have high blood pressure,” was a correction one older patient blurted out. Another said, “My prior surgery was actually on the right, not the left side.” Another patient interrupted me and said, “No, I said I take 20 milligrams, not 25 milligrams, of Lipitor.” Being able to review your doctor’s notes in writing might be even better than my method, particularly if you could add your own comments, perhaps via the Web.
Harvard doctor-researchers Jan Walker and Tom Delbanco are using “open notes” at Harvard and Beth Israel Hospital in Boston, and my hometown hospital, Geisinger Medical Center in Pennsylvania, has begun giving patients online access to their doctors’ notes. So far, both patients and doctors love it.
No More Gagging
Though there are many signs that health care is moving toward increased transparency, there is also some movement backward. Increasingly, patients checking in to see doctors are being asked to sign a gag order, promising never to say anything negative about their physician online or elsewhere. In addition, if you are the victim of a medical mistake, hospital lawyers will make never speaking publicly about your injury a condition of any settlement.
We need more open dialogue about medical mistakes, not less. It wouldn’t be going too far to suggest that these types of gag orders should be banned by law. They are utterly contrary to a patient’s right to know and to the concept of learning from our errors.
Political partisans can debate the role of government in fixing health care, but for either public or private approaches to work, transparency is the crucial prerequisite. To make transparency effective, government must play a role in making fair and accurate reports available to the public. In doing so, it will unleash the power of the free market as patients are better able to take charge of their own care. When hospitals have to compete on measures of safety, all of them will improve how they serve their patients.
Transparency can also help to restore the public’s trust. Many Americans feel that medicine has become an increasingly secretive, even arrogant, industry. With more transparency—and the accountability that it brings—we can address the cost crisis, deliver safer care and improve how we are seen by the communities we serve. To do no harm going forward, we must be able to learn from the harm we have already done.
—Dr. Makary, a surgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital and lead developer of the surgical checklists adopted by the World Health Organization, is the author of “Unaccountable: What Hospitals Won’t Tell You and How Transparency Can Revolutionize Health Care,” published this month by Bloomsbury Press.