Iris Scanners Used to Identify Patients

By ThinkReliability Staff

The Bronx, New York medical clinic had a potential problem.  It serves a large population (over 37,000 patients) that sometimes speaks limited English and has little identification.  Of the 37,000 patients served, the clinic had a high number of repeated names, including 103 Jose Rodriguezes.  The clinic was concerned that these issues would lead to potential safety issues if a patient was mistaken for another patient with the same or a similar name.

To address these concerns, the clinic has installed iris scanners to identify the patients.  The scanner pulls up a patient’s electronic medical records with an extremely low error rate.  An additional benefit is that an iris scanner does not require the patient to physically touch it, so it is much less likely to spread germs than a fingerprint or palm scanner.

The clinic has been extremely pleased with the iris scanner, noting that it has also helped fight benefits fraud and won the clinic recognition from the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society.   The downside is that the system is expensive.  (The Bronx clinic purchased their scanner with a grant from the New York Department of Health.)  However, considering the high prevalence and cost of medical errors, it seems to be a worthwhile expense.

Wrong Body Part Irradiated

By ThinkReliability Staff

In October of 2005 a therapist was preparing a patient for radiation therapy.  The therapist used a tattoo on the patient’s body to guide the radiation therapy.  Additionally the therapist brought up a photo of the area to be irradiated.  Unfortunately in this instance the tattoo and the photographs both indicated the patient’s esophagus – which was the site of previously delivered radiation therapy – instead of his upper spine, where the new radiation treatments were to be delivered.

Although there was no damage to the patient’s health, this incident impacted the facility’s patient safety goal, because of the potential for injury to a patient when radiation is delivered unnecessarily.  Additionally, it impacted the patient service goal because the radiation treatment was misdirected to the wrong body part.  The organization and compliance goals were impacted because of this reportable error.  Lastly, there are impact to the materials and labor goals due to the additional treatments that were required to deliver radiation to the upper spine.

The situation was complicated by the software error that brought up an old picture, indicating that the therapy should treat the esophagus.  To add to the confusion, there was a tattoo on the esophagus designating it as the site of the therapy.  There was nothing in the set-up notes to indicate that the patient had had a previous round of radiation therapy.  It is unclear whether the therapist had access to the patient’s chart, which would have designated the area to be irradiated and would mention the previous therapy.

The facility involved introduced measures to solve the software problems which resulted in the old photograph being downloaded.  Second therapy sites are now marked with double tattoos.  Information such as the therapy location and any previous radiation therapy sites are now included in the set-up notes.  Additionally, ensuring that the therapist has access to a patient’s medical chart will help allow the therapist to ensure a patient’s therapy is delivered properly.

Step 3 to avoid radiation therapy errors: verify the WHERE – which body part requires the radiation therapy

Wrong Radiation Treatment Delivered to Patient

by ThinkReliability Staff

A cancer patient was scheduled to receive two radiation therapy treatments – radiation to her upper lung every day, and radiation to her mediastinum on alternating days.  However, a mix-up resulted in her receiving the program for her lungs to her mediastinum (which resulted in ten times the prescribed dose) and receiving the program for her mediastinum to her lungs (which resulted in one-tenth the prescribed dose).  The patient died of cancer later in the year.

This incident impacted the facility’s patient safety goal, because the patient died of cancer, possibly because the radiation dose to her lungs was too low to effectively fight the cancer.  Additionally, it impacted the patient service goal because the patient received the wrong radiation treatment.  The organization and compliance goals were also impacted because of this reportable error.

How did this happen?  The patient had a complex radiation therapy program, involving two different treatments to two different parts of her body simultaneously (radiation was delivered to different body parts on alternating days). Obviously some confusion on the part of the staff was involved, and because only one therapist was present for administering the therapy, there was no oversight, or anyone else to catch the error.

Based on the causes of this incident, we can develop action items to be taken by the facility to reduce the risk of this type of incident happening again.  Unless it is medically necessary, avoiding administering two different therapies at one time would reduce the risk of this type of confusion.  The treatment a patient is receiving should always be verified before the treatment is administered.  Also, because of the high level of risk to patients, more than one therapist should be present.  (The facility involved in this particular incident has implemented a rule that more than one therapist be present for complex treatments.  Although it’s not clear exactly what’s meant by complex, surely this would qualify.)   Hopefully these steps, when taken by facilities who deliver radiation therapy to patients, will reduce the risk of radiation errors.

Step 2 to avoid radiation therapy errors: verify the WHAT – the type of treatment the patient is receiving.

Radiation Therapy Delivered to Wrong Patient

By ThinkReliability Staff

In March 2006 a patient (who we’ll call Patient A) reached an exciting milestone. She had just completed radiation treatment for a brain tumor.  However, she was not told that her radiation therapy was complete.  Instead, the therapist opened the medical chart of another patient (Patient B) and left.  Another therapist came in, saw the chart for Patient B, and noticed that Patient B required radiation treatment for breast cancer.  The therapist then delivered that radiation to Patient A.

This incident impacted the facility’s patient safety goal, because of the risk of injury to Patient A.  Additionally, it  impacted the patient service goal, because Patient A received unnecessary radiation.  The organization and compliance goals were also impacted because of this reportable error.

How did this happen?  Patient A was at risk for injury because of the delivery of unnecessary radiation.  She was given radiation meant for another patient because the therapist delivered the radiation and Patient A, not knowing that her own treatment was complete, didn’t know to stop it.  The therapist did not effectively verify the identity of Patient A, instead going off the chart that had been opened by the previous therapist, for unknown reasons.  Had the first therapist told Patient A that her therapy was complete, or had the first therapist not opened another patient’s chart, or had the second therapist verified the identity of Patient A, this error would probably not have occurred.

Based on the causes of this incident, we can develop action items to be taken by the facility to reduce the risk of this type of incident happening again.  Therapists should not open charts until they have verified the identity of a patient.  They should verify a patient’s identity before treatment, and they should review the outcome of a treatment with the patient.  After all, had any of these steps occurred, Patient A would have been able to properly celebrate the end of her radiation therapy, rather than worry about a risk to her health.

Step 1 to avoid radiation therapy errors: verify the WHO – the identity of the patient.

Hospital-Acquired Infections Sepsis and Pneumonia

By ThinkReliability Staff

Infections of any kind acquired in a hospital are undesirable from the perspective of both the hospital and the patient.  After all, patients go to a hospital to get better, not sicker.  Until recently, the incidence of these sorts of infections has been difficult to determine, with inconsistent reporting requirements across the country and difficulty determining the sources of such infections.  However, a recent study in the Archives of Internal Medicine has determined some staggering numbers related to two hospital-acquired infections, sepsis and pneumonia.  Together, these two infections result in 48,000 deaths and $8.1 billion in additional costs per year.  A total of 1.7 million patients contract infections at hospitals every year.

Sepsis is a bloodstream infection.  The study found that nearly 20% of patients who contract sepsis after invasive surgery at a hospital will die from it.  On average, a patient who contracts sepsis can expect 11 additional days at the hospital, at a cost of $32,900.  Sepsis contracted in hospitals is generally a bacterial infection, caused by bacteria in the bloodstream (known as bacteremia).  A patient must be exposed to bacteria in order for the bacteria to access the bloodstream.  Bacterial access to a patient can be caused by ineffective infectious control procedures.

Nosocomia (or hospital-acquired) pneumonia is an infection of the lungs.  Like sepsis, in a hospital setting it is generally caused by a bacterial infection when bacteria enter the lungs.  Also like sepsis, this requires bacterial access to the patient.  More than 11% of patients who contract nosocomial pneumonia after invasive surgery will die.  On average, a patient with nosocomial pneumonia will spend 14 extra days in the hospital, at a cost of $46,400.

To prevent these types of bacterial infections, every employee in a hospital must practice effective infectious disease control.  Each hospital must develop infection control procedures to aid in preventing the spread of disease.  As an example, here we’ll look at the infection control procedure for  pre-surgery.  This extremely simple procedure was developed based on the CDC’s Surgical Site Infection FAQs.  If a patient has hair in the surgical area, it should be clipped, not shaved, to avoid infection.  If a patient is high risk, he or she may receive antibiotics before the surgery.  The patient’s skin will be cleaned at the surgical site to avoid introducing the patient’s skin bacteria into the surgical wound.  Before the providers begin surgery, they will wash their hands and arms up to the elbows thoroughly and don protective wear.  This helps prevent bacteria carried by the providers (including bacteria from the providers’ previous patients) from infecting the patient.

This is just one example of a process that demonstrates infection control to protect patients from hospital-acquired infections.  More can be developed, based on a hospital’s best practices.  What’s important is the focus on infection control to protect patients.