Wrong Dye Injected into Spine During Surgery

By Kim Smiley

In the high stress, fast paced operating room environment, high consequence errors can and do happen, but the risk can be reduced by analyzing medical errors and improving standard work processes.  A recent case where a woman died unexpectedly after a routine procedure to insert a pump underneath her skin to administer medication offers many potentially useful lessons.  The wrong dye was injected into her spine during the surgery, which is the type of error that should be entirely preventable.

A Cause Map, or visual root cause analysis, can be used to analyze this issue.  To build a Cause Map, all causes that contribute to the issue are visually laid out to show the cause-and-effect relationships.  The general idea is to ask “why” questions to determine ALL the causes (plural) that contributed to the problem, and not focus the investigation on a single root cause because this allows a wider range of solutions to be considered.

So why did the wrong dye get injected into the patient?  The dye was injected because it was used during the surgery to verify the location of tubing that was threaded into the patient’s spine and the wrong dye was used.  The surgeon needed the dye to verify the location because the tubing was inserted during the surgery and it was difficult to see. The tubing was part of a pump that was being stitched under the patient’s skin to administer medication directly to the spine to treat symptoms from a back injury.  The patient had broken several vertebrae during a fall.

And now on to the meatier part of the discussion in regard to medical error prevention – why was the wrong dye used? The request for medication (dye) was given orally by the doctor to the nurse who passed it along to the pharmacy so it is possible that the pharmacist missed that the dye was intended for use in the spine.  The exact point where the work process breakdown occurred wasn’t clear in the media reports, but it is known that there were several checks in the process that failed for this type of error to occur.

Following this incident, the hospital did make changes in their work process to help reduce the likelihood of a similar error occurring.  The hospital now uses detailed written orders for medications except in emergencies when that isn’t possible.  The written order includes information about how the medication will be administered, which would have clarified that the dye was intended for use in the spine in this case.

The Hand is Quicker Than the Sneeze

By Kim Smiley

A new study, simply titled “How Quickly Viruses Can Contaminate Buildings and How to Stop Them”, found that a single source of contamination can spread to 40 to 60 percent of people and commonly touched objects within 2 to 4 hours.  As stated by Charles Gerba, a researcher at University of Arizona who worked on the study, “what we really learned was the hand is quicker than the sneeze in the spread of disease.”

To study the spread of viruses within a building, researchers contaminated a variety of surfaces in several different buildings with a benign virus that lives and multiplies within bacteria to use as a tracer.  The particular virus used was bacteriophage MS-2, which is similar to noroviruses which are a common cause of the stomach flu.

After some time had passed, researchers sampled surfaces that can harbor infectious organisms, such a light switches and faucet handles, to see how far the planted virus had spread. What they found was that the virus had spread to a majority of commonly touched surfaces after just two to four hours.  They also found that the bathroom wasn’t the worst offender; the break room was the most contaminated location.  (Just think how many people touch the coffee pot handle!)

The study also included an intervention phase where cleaning personal and employees were provided with quaternary ammonium compounds (QUATS) disinfectant containing wipes and instructed on proper use (at least once daily). After the use of the wipes, researchers retested the surfaces and found that the number of places where the virus was detected was reduced by 80% and the concentration of the virus was drastically reduced.

The recommended solutions that can be used to limit the spread of disease are relatively cheap and easy.  Washing hands with soap and water or using alcohol-based hand sanitizer is still the best way to reduce the spread of infectious organisms.  This study also showed that the use of wipes containing QUATS just once a day can prevent the spread of illness.  For most circumstances, neither of these practices should be cost nor time prohibitive.

This study didn’t exactly reach shocking conclusions –  all of us know we should be washing our hands after using the bathroom and before preparing food or eating – but it’s still a good reminder.  Flu and cold season is coming soon and some simple precautions can keep everybody healthier.

To view the Cause Map, a visual root cause analysis, of the results of this study – click on “Download PDF” above.

Health Declines as Veterans Wait for VA Care

By ThinkReliability Staff

On September 5, 2014, a tragic story was released of a man who lost most of his nose due to spreading cancer.   When diagnosing cancer, it’s generally acknowledged that the earlier the cancer is caught, the less the risk of the cancer spreading.  In this case, the veteran waited over two years for a biopsy.  He is one of thousands of patients who have had to wait unreasonable amounts of time for care through the Veterans Administration (VA) system.

Although the issues with delay of veterans care appear to be nationwide, looking at one particular incident can help shed some light on not only what went wrong, but possibilities for reducing the risk of it happening in the future.  The Inspector General examined dozens of cases of patients who died while waiting for care at the Phoenix VA hospital in order to determine the impacts of the delayed care, the causes related to it, and recommendations for fixing the problem.  We can also examine the impact, causes and potential solutions for the care issue by performing a root cause analysis based on the story of this particular patient.  (His case was not covered in the IG report, which primarily examined deaths of veterans while waiting to be seen at VA facilities.)

We can capture the analysis in a Cause Map, which visually lays out the cause-and-effect relationships that resulted in an incident in order to provide the maximum opportunities for improvement.  After the what, when and where of the incident are captured, it’s important to determine the impacts to the goals resulting from a particular issue.  In this case, the patient’s safety was endangered because of the spread of cancer.  The patient services goal was impacted because the patient lost most of his nose as a result of inadequate treatment at the healthcare facility.  The schedule/operations goal is impacted due to the delay in treatment of the patient.  In order to better quantify the effects of an overarching issue such as this one, a frequency of events is essential.  In this case, the Inspector General found that delayed treatment was clinically significant for at least 28 other veterans at the same VA hospital.  (The Inspector General also found that 40 veterans died while waiting for appointments but was unable to determine if the deaths were due to the delays.)

Beginning with an impacted goal, asking “Why” questions adds detail to the Cause Map.  The spread of the patient’s cancer was caused by a delay of treatment.  Treatment was delayed due to the exceptionally long wait for a biopsy (two and a half years) as well as the wait between the diagnosis and treatment (surgical removal).  Insufficient capacity and large numbers of veterans seeking care at the VA hospital resulted in veterans waiting months or even years for care.  Because (as described by a whistleblower physician from the site) the site used “secret” waiting lists (where patients were effectively put on a non-official waiting list for the waiting list so that the reported wait was within an acceptable time frame), oversight of the facility was minimal.  As in this case, many veterans prefer to get care at a VA facility and/or don’t have another type of insurance that would cover the costs incurred for healthcare needs.

As expected, the results of these investigations have resulted in a number of personnel being removed from their positions in the VA.  The “secret” waiting lists were used to hide the fact that the VA hospitals don’t appear to have the capacity for the number of veterans that need treatment.  Significant additional funding is being directed towards the VA in order to build more hospitals and hire additional medical staff.   In the meantime (and possibly continuing into the future if capacity continues to be inadequate), arrangements for veterans to receive covered care at other facilities are being made.

In light of these highly publicized issues, hopefully the VA will receive the funding and oversight it needs so that the nation’s veterans can receive the care they deserve.

Amputated Leg Cremated by Hospital Against Patient’s Wishes

By ThinkReliability Staff

When a patient at a Chicago-area hospital had to have a portion of his leg amputated, he requested that it be returned to him for burial in accordance with his religious beliefs.  The hospital cremated it instead, and the patient has sued the hospital and the hospital rabbi, whom the patient informed of his desires.  The lawsuit was dismissed but an appeals court sent the case back for trial.

More information is sure to come out at the trial, but we can begin documenting the information that is known in a Cause Map, or a visual root cause analysis.  The Cause Mapping method begins by determining the problem in a problem outline.  The what, when and where is captured, as well as the impacts to the goals.  This is especially important in a case like this.  The patient might claim that the “problem” is that his leg was cremated, while the hospital would probably consider this to be the normal practice of disposed limbs.  Instead phrasing the problem as an impact to the organization’s goals (in this case, the hospital’s) agreement can be met.  In this case, the compliance goal is impacted because of a lawsuit against the hospital.  The patient services goal is impacted because a patient’s requests were not heeded, and because a patient did not understand the release forms presented to him prior to the surgery.

Beginning with an impacted goal, asking why questions will develop cause-and-effect relationships.  For example, asking the question “Why were the patient’s requests not heeded?” results in the cause “Patient’s leg was cremated.”  The patient’s leg was cremated because there appears to be no procedure for ensuring limbs are saved if requested because typical practice is to dispose of removed limbs.  Additionally, the patient signed two release forms which stated the hospital could dispose of the removed portion of the leg.

Clearly the patient did not understand the release forms, as he wanted the leg to be saved, not disposed of.  This is another impact to the patient services goal.  The patient is legally blind, and so was unable to effectively read the release forms himself.  In the lawsuit, the patient claims that the nurse who presented him with the forms explained them as consent forms for surgery and did not discuss that the forms also addressed disposal of the limb that would be removed.

Because the request for the leg was unusual, if the nurse who described the release forms was unaware of the request, it seems understandable that the portion discussing the disposal of the removed limbs (as was done in almost all cases), would not have stood out as something that the patient needed to have summarized.  However, this case has raised an issue with summarizing release forms to patients who are not able to read them.

The hospital has not discussed what steps it will take to reduce the likelihood of this type of issue recurring in the future.  However, some steps that may reduce the risk are to develop a procedure that would ensure special requests for removed body parts in surgery are followed.  Additionally, having release forms read out loud completely for patients who are unable to read the forms themselves would allow those patients to know all of what they are signing.