Several months ago, we announced some audacious goals for BIDMC that were established by our Board, including elimination of preventable harm by 2012. We also promised that we would publish our progress towards that goal. We have now set this up on our website here. You can watch to see our data each quarter in each of the several categories listed.
When we were getting ready to publish these numbers, some of our trustees asked if we could put the numbers in terms of the percentage of cases in which there was preventable harm. By that measure, the number would be very, very small, about 40 cases out of over 200,000 in a calendar quarter, about 2/100's of a percent.
We said, "No, the point is to emphasize that each of the case involved an actual human being." Describing them as a percentage would dehumanize the physical impact on a real person, someone's mother, father, sister, or brother.
Last week, I was invited to give a lecture on this topic at the Harvard School of Public Health, and a different question was posed by a doctor in the class. "How can you set a target of zero," he asked, "when we know that zero is impossible?" I replied, "Putting aside the question of whether zero is impossible, the most motivational target is zero. If you say that we are trying to reduce, say, infections by 20 percent per year, people will feel satisfied if they meet that target. The idea is to establish creative tension for the organization by adopting an audacious goal. And, by the way, in certain areas, other hospitals have shown that zero is attainable for extended periods of time for certain types of error-avoidance."
At the other end of the spectrum, we are taking criticism from some people who see an inconsistency between these efforts at transparency and our lack of discussion or disclosure about particular cases. But we need to do that for reasons of patient privacy or for other legal reasons. For example, when a malpractice case is filed, we cannot and will not discuss that case publicly. For one thing, any comment we make can be construed as a violation of the patient's privacy. For another, as any lawyer will tell you, it is simply bad policy to discuss issues of this kind of litigation in a public forum. The plaintiff's attorney faces no such constraints, of course, and might perceive some benefit in holding a press conference to discuss the case. While we understand a reporter's desire to write a balanced story, our reply usually has to be, "No comment."
But outside of a particular lawsuit story, what are we going to say and disclose about all these cases of harm that are summarized on our website? The answer is that it depends. You can see from the chart that there are currently over 100 cases of preventable harm per year spread over several categories. As we have recently, when we think a specific case warrants wide public disclosure to help our staff be alert to a major challenge or teaching opportunity, we will give it wide circulation. Other specific cases will be given more limited distribution among our staff, consistent with their value in teaching about the need and means for quality improvement in a given sector of our hospital. And, in other situations, a pattern of several cases of a certain type might be presented to particular segments of our staff as a warning of a problem area.
We understand that our inclination towards transparency will garner criticism from some who think we are not being transparent enough when they have an issue or curiosity about a particular case. That is a by-product of what we have chosen to do, and we accept that.
Another by-product is that publication of these numbers may give the impression that we harm patients more than other hospitals. After all, we publish our numbers, and they do not. And many cases we publicize to our staff will inevitably be considered newsworthy by the local media. This, in fact, is why doctors and hospitals often don't like to talk about this stuff. Fundamentally, they don't want to be judged by the general public and the media, whom they deem to be unqualified observers of the medical scene.
Anyway, I want to assure you that there is no indication whatsoever that we harm patients more than other hospitals. (In fact, we know that our figures for certain types of hospital acquired infections are well below average.) But please remember that every study or analysis ever done indicates that hospitals rank highly among the country's public health hazards. Don't think that you are more safe in a place just because they don't talk about their errors. We believe that the only way to improve in this arena is to be open and honest about your mistakes and thereby enable people to learn from them.