Tag Archives: risk

Abuse of “Good Grade” Pills

By Kim Smiley

A recent New York Times article, “Risky Rise of the Good-Grade Pill” talked about the dangers associated with abuse of prescription stimulants.  These stimulants are prescribed to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), but they cause individuals without the disorder to become hyper focused and better able to concentrate for long periods of time.  There isn’t good data on how many high school students are abusing the stimulants, but anecdotal evidence implies that a significant number of students, especially those at highly competitive high schools, use the prescription stimulants to help improve test score and grades.

This issue can be analyzed by building a Cause Map, a visual root cause analysis.  The first step when beginning a Cause Map is to determine the impact to the overall organizational goals.  In this example, the Safety Goal is impacted because there are risks to the students abusing the prescription stimulants.  Once the impact is defined, “why” questions are asked and causes are added to the Cause Map.

Why are there risks to students abusing prescription stimulants?  Students are at risk because students without medical need are using the stimulants, the stimulants can be dangerous and illegal sale or procession of these drugs can have severe consequences.

Students are using the stimulants because they are available and they can aid in earning good grades.  The stimulants are available because some people sell them and there is anecdotal evidence that some students fake the symptoms to get prescriptions for them.

Many of the students using these stimulants don’t realize that there can be serious health issues with using them.  First off, these drugs are one of the most addictive substances that have a medical use.  There is little known about the potential long term health issues of abusing prescription stimulants.  There is also a concern that these drugs may act as a gateway drug which has the potential to open the door to more drug abuse as students get more comfortable with the idea of taking pills. In the short term, there are a number of health issues to consider including heart irregularities, exhaustion and even psychosis during withdrawal.

Another important fact many students are unaware of is that giving these drugs to a friend can have heavy legal consequences.  Distribution of prescription stimulants is considered a felony.  Adderall, Ritalin and other name brand stimulants used to treat ADHD are controlled as Class 2 substances, the same as cocaine and morphine, and the sale of them carries severe penalties.

This issue is just beginning to come to light and more information is needed to fully understand how many students are involved and the best way to stop the abuse of the prescription stimulants.  As more information is available it can easily be added to the Cause Map.

To view a high level Cause Map of this issue, click on “Download PDF” above.

Facial Burns from Surgical Fires

By ThinkReliability Staff

At least two patients received burns to the face from surgical fires in early December 2011.  Surgical fires are becoming an increasing risk to patients (and staff) in the operating room.  Although the 550-650 surgical fires a year that are estimated to occur by the ECRI Institute is a small percentage of patients undergoing surgery, this doesn’t make surgical fires seem “rare” to those who are affected.

A surgical fire, like any fire, requires the presence of three elements: a heat (or ignition) source, fuel, and an oxidizing agent.  Oxygen is necessarily present for breathing; however, additional oxygen supplied to the patient increases the risk of a fire.  Additionally, nitrous oxide produces oxygen from thermal decomposition.  An increased level of oxygen increases the risk of a surgical fire.  Like oxygen, fuel will always be present in a surgical room.  Prep agents, drapes, and even a patient’s hair are fuel sources.  Vapors from insufficiently dry prep agents are extremely flammable.  Although some drapes are advertised as flame-resistant, the ECRI has determined that all types of drapes burn in oxygen.

Surgical equipment, such as electro-cautery devices and lasers, are believed to provide the ignition source for many surgical fires.  The increased use of such devices is believed to contribute to the increase in surgical fires.  Although these devices can provide benefits during surgery, a non-ignition source tool should be considered for surgery performed near the oxygen supply of a patient requiring oxygen.

The best way to protect patients from surgical fires is to prevent them by reducing the use of oxygen, decreasing the flammability of potential fuel sources in the operating room (by allowing prep agents to dry and coating hair or other flammable objects with water-based lubricant) and ensuring that heat sources are monitored carefully to reduce the risk of ignition.  In addition, operating teams should be prepared in the case of fire to minimize effects on patient and staff safety by taking steps to extinguish the fire and evacuate if necessary.

The effects and causes of surgical fires, as well as some recommended solutions, can be diagrammed in a Cause Map, a visual form of root cause analysis.  To view the Cause Map for surgical fires, please click “Download PDF” above.  Or click here to read a more detailed write-up about patient burns.

Additional resources on surgical fires:

ECRI Institute


The Joint Commission

Anesthesia Patient Safety Foundation (APSF)

Young Boy Killed by Projectile During MRI

By Kim Smiley

It has been over ten years since six year old Michael Colombini died as a result of injuries that occurred during a routine MRI.  He was undergoing a post-surgery MRI after removal of a benign brain tumor when he was hit by a magnetic oxygen tank that was pulled toward the MRI machine at high speed.  His skull was fractured and he died two days later.

How did this horrible accident happen?

A Cause Map, or visual root cause analysis, can be built to help explain the causes that contributed to this death.  In this example, the patient needed an MRI because he had a brain tumor removed and he was hit by a magnetized oxygen tank while in the MRI machine.  This occurred because the oxygen tank was attracted by the huge magnet in the MRI and flew towards the machine at high speed.

MRI magnets will always attract magnetic things, even when the machine is off.  Bringing a magnetic oxygen tank into a MRI examination room is a dangerous situation.  In this example, there are several reasons why the tank was brought into the MRI area.  The tank was bought into the room by a well-meaning nurse who heard the anesthesiologist calling for oxygen.

The nurse had returned to the MRI area in order to retrieve something she had left there earlier in the day when she had accompanied a patient to the space.  She heard the anesthesiologist calling for oxygen and saw the tanks nearby so she handed one to the doctor.  Contributing to this accident is the fact that the oxygen tanks were stored near the door to the MRI exam room.

The anesthesiologist was calling for oxygen because the patient had low oxygen saturation levels and needed additional oxygen.  The patient was a six year old boy so he had been sedated for the MRI procedure.  A piped in system normally supplied oxygen for use during MRIs, but the system had malfunctioned.  Both MRI techs on duty had gone to investigate the piped in oxygen system failure so nobody trained on MRI safety was around when the nurse bought in the oxygen tank.

Some simple solutions that might have helped prevent this accident, even with the oxygen system failure include storing oxygen tanks far away from the MRI exam room and not allowing unescorted non-MRI staff into the space.  It’s also always a good idea to have an acceptable back up for important systems planned in advance.  If a second safe oxygen supply was already provided, this accident could have been prevented.

The magnets in MRI machines are 200 times stronger than a refrigerator magnet and, as this example illustrates, the potential for injuries from projectiles is very real. Like most accidents, this death was caused by a number of failures that occurred at the same time.  All of the staff involved was trying to do the right thing, but the end result was the unnecessary death of a young boy.

Heatstroke Deaths of Football Players

By Kim Smiley

A study released in 2010 shed some light on what seems like a high number of football players dying of heat-related deaths.  The study determined that the number of heat-related deaths have actually increased in recent years from less than two per year in the early 90s to nearly 3 currently.  The study outlined some of the causes for the increase.  We can look at these causes in a thorough root cause analysis built as a Cause Map.

We begin with the outline, which captures the impact to the goals as well as the general information about the issue we are investigating.  In this case, we are looking at deaths of football players in the U.S.  The study determined that most deaths occur during football practice in August, in the morning, to linemen.  The impact to the goal of concern is risk of player death.

Beginning with the impacted goal, we can ask why questions to analyze the issue.  The player deaths occur from heatstroke that is not treated immediately, whether from players and/or coaches not recognizing the signs of heatstroke, or treatment being delayed while waiting for an ambulance or other medical professional.  Heatstroke occurs when a person’s heat generation is greater than their cooling ability.  This means there are two parts to the analysis: the heat generation, and the cooling ability.  In this case, increased heat generation occurs from high ambient heat and high levels of body heat being produced, caused by practicing outside in hot weather.

Insufficient cooling ability can occur when a player’s sweating isn’t doing enough to cool him – such as when a player isn’t producing sweat due to dehydration or when the sweat isn’t evaporating, such as in high humidity.  Additionally, players who are large (have a high BMI) tend to be more susceptible to heatstroke as their bodies tend to store more heat.  This is presumably why most deaths occur in linemen, who tend to be larger (79% of the players who died had a BMI above 30.)  Most deaths occur in August, which, in addition to being hot, tends to be the start of the season, meaning players are not accustomed to practicing in the heat.

What can players, coaches, school districts, and parents do to limit the risk of death from heatstroke?  First, ensure that everyone involved in a sporting program recognizes the signs of heat-related illness.  There is a CDC toolkit that provides important information.  Next, make sure that a player who has signs of heat-related illness is treated immediately – while waiting for the ambulance to arrive, take the player out of the sun and spray him with water.  To try and avoid heat-related illnesses, ease into practices at the beginning of the season, limit practice time in extremely high heat and/or humidity, and provide plenty of hydration.

To view the outline, Cause Map, and solutions, please click on “Download PDF” above.

Emergency Generators: A Loss of Power Doesn’t Mean a Loss of Life

By ThinkReliability Staff

If you are working at a healthcare facility, you most likely have an emergency generator. However, that emergency generator probably powers only certain critical sections of the facility, and it probably doesn’t include the administration part of the building. Why is that so?

We can look at impacts to the goals to determine why a solution that’s successfully implemented to solve a problem at one location or organization may not be the right solution for another organization. In a hospital, a loss of power could impact the goals pretty severely – the risk of death to the patients impacts the safety goal, the loss of life-saving equipment impacts the customer service goal. Additionally, the production goal may be impacted because the facility is unable to enter new patients. Last but not least, an additional cost (impact to the materials/labor goal) may be incurred transferring patients to a new facility. Obviously the risk of death means a HUGE impact to the organization’s goals, demanding comprehensive reliability solutions.

Compare this to an office building, such as where our administrative offices would be. If a loss of power occurred, the goals would be impacted – employees could get injured leaving the building if the lights went out. This is an impact to the safety goal. We may lose our business function during the outage, which would be an impact to the customer service and production goals. Additionally, we may have to pay our employees for a non-work day. The goals are impacted, but the severity of the impacts pales compared to the impacts of a hospital or medical facility losing power.

If we create a Cause Map based on these impacts to the goals, it shows that all the impacts to the goals tie back to a loss of electrical power, caused by both a power outage AND a lack of back-up electricity source. (The Outline and Cause Map are shown on the downloadable PDF.)

When determining solutions, there are a few that come to mind, including transferring patients to another healthcare facility (which becomes an impact to the goals) and installing battery backups in equipment. However, because of the severe impacts to the goals, a hospital will likely decide that the whole problem can be solved by installing an emergency generator. Problem solved; we have been able to find the best solution.

The administrative offices may feel differently. The cost of installing an emergency generator is large, and if we compare that cost to the costs that would be incurred due to a loss of power without backup, it’s probably not worth it. Instead, the office building may implement solutions further to the left on the Cause Map, such as installing emergency lighting, or using battery backups, that would mitigate (but not prevent) the impacts to the goals. So, just because a solution was the “right” solution in one case, it may not be in every case.

View the Outlines and Cause Maps for both the hospital and office building by clicking “Download PDF” above.

View the Joint Commission’s article on Power System Failures.