Fixes Don’t Have to be Complicated

By Kim Smiley

The main goal of doing root cause analysis is to get to the solutions at the end.  The actual analysis portion serves to provide a comprehensive, orderly way to get to those solutions.  The best way to get solutions is brainstorming by all the personnel who have a stake in the issue – and maybe some who don’t.  The New York Times recent series on “small fixes” has highlighted some amazing developments that are helping to mitigate a large number of healthcare issues, in extremely easy ways.

For example: Pap smears are frequently used to diagnose cervical cancer in wealthy countries.  But what about countries that don’t have enough doctors or labs to make this a practical solution?  Increasing the number of doctors or labs is an extremely long-term, complicated solution.  Instead, Johns Hopkins developed a new procedure that can be done in one visit by a nurse, without lab work.  You brush vinegar on the cervix, precancerous cells turn white, and they’re frozen off right then with carbon dioxide.

Another organization, Diagnostics for All, has developed paper diagnostic forms  for a whole host of diseases, which are smaller than a stamp, can be run off on a Xerox machine, cost less than a penny and can be read without training.  Although these end results are inexpensive and accessible, the path to get there may be more complicated.  Diagnostics for All is supported by grants and foundations, but that kind of support is getting harder to find as the economy continues to worsen.  Additionally, profit for items designed primary to assist developing countries are limited.

There’s also the general feeling that expensive, complicated fixes must be better.  Some of the most effective fixes for healthcare issues – washing hands, using checklists, losing weight – are still not universally used and are constantly in danger of being replaced with costly, cumbersome alternatives.  Sometimes it’s just that people don’t believe something simple can be effective.  Sometimes it’s that the people who have been seeing these problems for years believe that if a solution were that easy, it would have already worked, and something more invasive and expensive is needed.  And, sadly, a lot of it comes down to profit.  Expensive machines, diagnostics and procedures simply make everyone involved more money than using vinegar, paper, and soap.  It’s possible, and hopeful, that the changes in the economy will start turning things in a different direction.

How can you start implementing small fixes in your organization?  First, get everyone involved in the root cause analysis and solution brainstorming.  Bring in a few people who don’t appear to have anything to do with the issue.  Explain the issue to them and let them come up with a few solutions.  Their fresh voice may result in a fresh idea.  Examine all potential solutions for ease of implementation and projected effectiveness.  If you’ve got an idea that’s easy to implement, go ahead and implement it.  If it doesn’t work, or more help is still needed, go on to the more difficult-to-implement solutions.  Start an idea box.  It’s free, it’s easy, and you may be surprised what people come up with.  The New York Times has its own “Small Fixes Challenge” It posts a healthcare problem, explains the details of the issue, and invites reader ideas.  The ideas are reviewed by a healthcare professional well-versed in the topic.

Try a small fix in your organization today.  Ask someone what they see as an issue in the organization.  And then ask them what they’d do to fix it.  A great way to get a variety of responses is ask for the “money is no object” fix, a “free” fix, and then a fix somewhere in the middle.  The answers may surprise you.  And they might have a great idea with their “free” fix.  So, what are you waiting for?  Like all small fixes, it’s worth a try.

The Number of Accidental Child Poisoning from Medication is Increasing

By Kim Smiley

A recent study in The Journal of Pediatrics revealed that the number of accidental drug overdoses by children is increasing in the United States.  An investigation of hundreds of thousands of patient records showed that the number of accidental drug poisonings among children under 5 years of age increased 22% from 2001 to 2008.

In 95% of the cases, the overdose occurred because the child self-ingested the drugs, as opposed to a labeling or dosing error.

Why?  How are so many young children finding and consuming medication? And more importantly, what could be done to prevent these accidental overdoses?

This incident can be built into a Cause Map, an intuitive visual method for root cause analyses.  Better understanding the causes that contribute to a problem can lead to finding better solutions.

According to the study, one of the causes contributing to the increase in accidental overdoses is that there is simply more medication in homes with small children.  As lifestyles change, the population is facing more health problems.  Obesity and metabolic syndromes are more common at younger ages than in the past and more homes of small children now contain medication associated with these illnesses as well as a variety of other medications.

Changes in drug technology have also affected the severity of overdoses, if not the number of occurrences.  More sustained-release medications are being prescribed and they can result in more severe poisoning.

The study also suggests that there is a possibility that people are being less strict about storing drugs safely, but it’s difficult to prove.  There is also the issue that people may not be aware of how dangerous their prescription and OTC medications are.

One thing we know is that the current safety precautions are ineffective.  Children are findings ways to open child proof caps and warning labels aren’t sufficiently motivating adults to safely store medications in locked or inaccessible locations.

Changing medication packaging is one of the potential solutions being considered for this problem.  New packaging that would be more difficult to open or would only dispense limited amounts of medication.  Bottles can be designed to dispense one pill at a time or restrict the flow of liquid.

Medical Information from 20,000 Patients Posted Online

By ThinkReliability Staff

Unfortunately, privacy of health records has become an increasingly frustrating issue.  The Department of Health and Human Services revealed that records for 11 million people were potentially made public for over two years.  A recent medical records privacy breach has made the news for the length of time the records were publicly exposed.

A hospital in California recently notified 20,000 patients that their data had been published on a commercial website from September 9, 2010 to August 23, 2011.  The published data was discovered by a patient and had been used to demonstrate the use of turning data into a bar graph.  This particular data had been given to an outside contractor for billing purposes. Although it did not contain information usually used for identity theft – such as social security numbers, it did include names and diagnosis codes, meaning that extremely personal information was included.

We can examine this issue in a Cause Map, or visual root cause analysis.  A Cause Map begins with the impacts to an organization’s goals and uses the principles of cause-and-effect to examine the causes that contributed to these impacts.  Any breach of patient privacy can be considered an impact to the patient services goals.  In fact, health care organizations may choose to add a new goal category of “Patient Privacy”.  (This is shown on the  downloadable PDF.  To view, click “Download PDF” above.)  In addition to the impacted patient services and patient privacy goals, the hospital was fined $250,000 (the maximum) by the California Department of Public Health and provided identity protection services to the affected patients.  Given the astonishingly large numbers of medical records accidentally made public, this is an issue to which all healthcare facilities should be paying attention.

The exact method that the data made it onto a public website (which provided homework assistance) is not known, but the data had been provided to an outside contractor used for billing purposes.  The contractor is no longer being used by the hospital, and some privacy experts say that better confidentiality agreements are needed by hospitals who provide patient information to outside contractors.  What is particularly disturbing about this case is that the data remained online for nearly a year – and was discovered by a patient.  However, there does not seem to be a practical way for individual organizations to monitor the internet for misplaced patient data.  Instead, focus should be on ensuring better protection upfront for medical data, in an attempt to limit breaches of patient privacy.

To view the Outline and Cause Map, please click “Download PDF” above.  Or view the New York Times article to learn more.

Teenager Paralyzed After Epidural Not Removed

By ThinkReliability Staff

In May 2008, a fourteen-year-old entered an English Children’s Hospital for a routine surgery to remove gallstones.  The recovery, however, was anything but routine.  The patient was given a spinal epidural to reduce pain during the operation; however, the epidural was not removed until two days later. By then, permanent damage of the spinal cord caused the patient to be paralyzed from the waist down.

The hospital has admitted liability, possibly leaving them responsible for some or all of the patient’s specialist care and support.  Because the anesthetic needle was not removed until the patient’s body until far later than it should have been – and more than a day after the patient’s first complaints of leg numbness – it begs the question whether the procedure for administering an epidural included follow-up care, including removal.  Procedures – whether they are written down or not – exist for most complex tasks, especially medical tasks that involve risks to patient safety.  If use of the procedure results in an error, it should be re-examined.  However, many procedures only include the first part of a procedure, or the administration, ignoring follow-up that must be completed to ensure the process is a complete success.  In this case, that follow-up should have included checks to ensure that the patient was recovering from the epidural (which would have noted something amiss when she continued to feel numbness in her legs) and a schedule to remove the epidural.  Because neither of these things happened, a plan for follow-up after administering epidurals must be developed and put into practice.

To view the Outline and Cause Map, please click “Download PDF” above.