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Research on ‘Medical Errors’ Published in Journal of Patient Safety

NOTE:  Our peer-reviewed article concerning the prevalence of medical errors experienced by Iowans has been published in the September 2020 issue of the international publication, Journal of Patient Safety (JPS).  The article summarizes the experiences and opinions of a statistically representative sample of 1,010 Iowans, and provides new insights on approaches Iowa can take to determine the extent of the problem and develop solutions to obtain safer care for patients. 

The article, “Medical Errors in Iowa: Prevalence and Patients’ Perspectives,” was co-authored by myself and two others: David R. Andresen, PhD and Andrew Williams, MA. The article reports that medical errors, also known as preventable adverse events, are seldom voluntarily reported by healthcare providers in Iowa and the U.S.

Quantifying the magnitude of the medical error problem is an essential first-step toward solving these safety issues. The hope is that vulnerabilities in the healthcare delivery process will be exposed so that solutions can be found. However, the U.S. does not have a bona fide national strategy to assess medical errors, and, as a result, hospitals and clinicians around the country do not report medical errors accurately and consistently.

The JPS article suggests there is no single method for healthcare providers to promote full, transparent reporting of medical errors. However, the approaches described can serve as a counter-balance to lax provider reporting that includes the patient experience and perspective:

  • Implement mandatory provider reporting and appropriate compliance enforcement. From this, reported errors can help medical organizations more clearly understand exactly what happened, regardless of the outcome of the error, and identify the combination of factors that caused the error or near-miss to occur.
  • Create a central state repository for patients to report medical errors, making sure the reporting process is uncomplicated.
  • Develop an on-going, independent, random-sampling process to survey patients (and family members) who recently received care to document the prevalence and nature of medical errors. This is the most disruptive approach. From this collection process, state authorities, medical providers and the public will gain critical insight on the prevalence of medical errors, allowing for improvements. When errors are not reported and discussed, providers miss crucial feedback and learning opportunities.

The survey process can originate from claims data available through Medicare, Medicaid and private insurance companies. Patient experiences with medical errors can be collected and monitored for each medical provider, who would then receive systematic feedback about these errors to facilitate improvement processes. Through this data collection, results of medical errors would eventually be publicly reported for each institutional provider (e.g. hospital, surgery center, etc.).

A vast majority of Iowans have positive experiences with the healthcare system in Iowa. However, nearly one-in-five Iowa adults (18.8 percent) report having experienced a medical error either personally or with someone close to them during the past five years. Of those, 60 percent say they were not told by the responsible healthcare provider that an error had occurred. The survey found that hospitals were the most frequent site of medical errors (59 percent), while 30 percent of errors occurred in a doctor’s office or clinic, four percent in nursing homes and seven percent at some other location.

Among many important findings, the Iowa survey found that nearly 90 percent of Iowans “strongly agree” that healthcare providers should be required to tell patients about any medical errors. Additionally, 93 percent of Iowans “somewhat agree” (30 percent) or “strongly agree” (63 percent) the public should have access to medical-error information for each hospital and doctor.

Iowans feel strongly that medical errors must not be hidden from the public and should be reported, both to the patient and to an appropriate regulatory agency. Quality of healthcare will only improve when leadership, organizational culture and patient engagement are fully aligned. When seeking healthcare, patients deserve truthful, timely and transparent information about medical errors. Additionally, insurance companies can also contribute by embracing the safety of care their members receive from the medical providers included within their networks.

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2020 is a Mixed Bag for Health Insurers – Surging Revenue but Low Grades

Imagine that you are the CEO of a large, midwest-based, health insurance company and have just learned the results of a national survey where employers gave your company a mid-level grade on the ability to direct employees to high-quality health care. Somewhat discouraging news, don’t you think?

But there’s also good news. Net income for your organization is up almost 100 percent during the recent quarter and you have personally received over $52 million in total pay for 2019.  In fact, your total realized compensation increased 143 percent from the $21.5 million you took home in 2018.

Such is the life of this non-fictional CEO, whose compensation is comprised of salary, stocks, contributions to pension and many other wonderful perks.

Steady Revenue for Insurers – Reduced Claims

Due to the widespread deferral of elective and routine care during the COVID-19 pandemic in the second quarter, health insurance companies have benefited from plummeting medical costs while still collecting predetermined health premiums from their customers. This fortuitous ‘perfect storm’ has resulted in insurers obtaining skyrocketing net income compared to the same period a year ago.

How this will continue to play out when the pandemic recedes, however, will not be known for some time.

Both small and large insurance organizations experienced miraculous financial returns from the second quarter of 2020. UnitedHealth Group reported a net income of $6.7 billion – a 97.8 percent increase. Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield reported an increase of 99.8 percent, while Cigna Corp. reported a net income increase of almost 25 percent during this same period.

Many executives promise to correct this financial imbalance by eventually returning excess funds to customers and health providers.

CEO Compensation Growth

Meanwhile, according to a BDO USA survey released earlier this year, health insurer CEOs are doing quite well financially.  I don’t begrudge their success, I really don’t. I do believe, however, in responsible capitalism. Making millions upon millions of dollars just to be an administrator is both excessive and unconscionable. The ‘value’ provided by health insurers within our dysfunctional health system raises some concern. The question of ‘how much is too much’ is a subjective gymnastic exercise, however.

The 2019 compensation for the aforementioned CEO was 348 times more than the median pay earned by an employee at his organization ($54,322). This example is merely illustrative of the health insurance industry.

Lack of Price Transparency

Both insurance companies and hospitals are resisting the tidal wave that is moving toward healthcare price transparency, which should call into question the commitment insurers have to their premium-paying clients. For example, are insurers in business to serve medical providers or their employer clients? Perhaps insurers serve both parties? If so, are employers at a disadvantage by not having specific knowledge of the prices negotiated between insurers and providers? I believe they are.

Without transparency in prices and patient outcomes, how do employers know they are receiving commensurate value for the premiums they pay – which also includes administrative costs charged by insurers? Frankly, it is very subjective.

According to 2019 data from the Kaiser Family Foundation, over 156 million non-elderly Americans – or almost half of the country’s total population – receive employer-sponsored health insurance. By sheer numbers, employers are entitled to know what negotiated arrangements are made between the insurers they use and the medical provider community.

But now comes a newly-released survey. This one addresses whether employers are satisfied with their insurers.

Employers’ View on Insurers is Lukewarm

In July, The Leapfrog Group released very interesting survey results regarding an online survey of employer executives that administer and fund benefits for employees and their dependents. Leapfrog, an independent national healthcare watchdog organization on healthcare issues for employers around the country, desired to “gain employer perspectives on health plan effectiveness in achieving health care quality, safety and value.”

Survey respondents, a total of 174 employers* – small, midsize and large – cited their experiences with health plans that included, Aetna, Cigna, UnitedHealthcare, and over a dozen Blue Cross and Blue Shield plans around the country. Four key issues were rated by employers:

  1. Responsiveness of the health plan to employer concerns;
  2. Transparency in helping employers and employees choose the best (health) providers;
  3. Payment reform initiatives that incentivize excellence in the market; and
  4. Value strategies driven by health plans.

The responses by employers on each issue is quite revealing on just how they perceive the value provided by insurers on high-cost healthcare. These perceptions, by the way, are not flattering to health insurers, especially the views coming from larger employers.

According to the summary of results, Leapfrog indicated that “Most employer respondents appeared to have reservations about whether their health plan puts their needs above the preferences of contracted providers. About a third of Cigna and Aetna clients believed their plan put them first, while only 14 percent of UnitedHealthcare employers were similarly satisfied.

Overall, when asked to grade their health plans, from A to F, employer respondents gave their plans a C-plus (2.57 GPA) on their ability to direct their employees to high-quality healthcare. UnitedHealthcare received the poorest grade, with a 2.29 GPA.

Having accountability in healthcare delivery, payment and outcomes is extremely important to payers. But – at least with the Leapfrog survey – insurers have a long way to go in making their value commensurate with how insurers earn their profits in a poorly-run health system.

Insurance company CEOs should take a hard look at themselves in their mirrors to really see what their reflection candidly reveals.

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*I would’ve like to have seen a bit larger number of respondents, but this is, nonetheless, a very good survey.

Making ‘Patient Safety Culture’ Results Public

Imagine the staff within your organization being surveyed every two years to reveal just how successful your organization is when manufacturing or delivering safe services to your clients. Further, the results are then shared with the public.  As of July 1, the state of Florida is requiring hospitals and ambulatory surgery centers to do just that.

Over the years, I have written extensively on how having a healthy ‘culture’ is extremely important for any organization as it drives the right behaviors to successfully function internally and externally. In healthcare, having the right kind of ‘culture’ can make the difference between life and death for patients.  It’s that important.

Simply put, culture – both good and bad – is the DNA of any organization. If given truth serum, an organization’s staff can reveal just how functional (or not) it is. An organization’s culture ensures that its purpose and the purpose of its members are aligned. The compatibility of goals will drive the members to perform well, be self-directed and loyal to the organization.

In healthcare, a ‘culture of safety’ is paramount for patients trusting they will receive appropriate care.  When you think about it, who better to ask about quality of service within a hospital than the frontline workers themselves – staff, nurses, technicians, etc.? Research suggests that medical organizations with higher staff perceptions of working in a safe culture translated into better overall safety and quality outcomes.

Hospital Survey on Patient Safety Culture

A 2018 blog that I wrote touches on the importance of having patient safety culture information available on a public basis. In fact, this blog suggested a simple idea for Iowa policymakers and stakeholders to pursue:

Have ALL Iowa hospitals and outpatient surgery centers undertake the hospital staff survey generated from the Hospital Survey on Patient Safety Culture. The survey would happen every other year (biennial) with the results becoming public.

Having this state-wide policy, I argued, could put Iowa on the map as being one of the more proactive states on safety measures and patient outcomes. In 2018, no other state required this type of information to be reported publicly.

Florida Becomes First State

In early March, right before COVID-19 hit our state and country in full force, I learned that Florida lawmakers were about to pass legislation to require hospitals and ambulatory surgery centers to report – on a biennial basis – results from the standardized patient safety culture surveys that are developed by the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ).

Fast forward to now. The proposed legislation was passed and approved by the Florida Governor and took effect July 1, 2020.  Iowa, unfortunately, will not be the first state to enact this patient-centric legislation.

Florida’s Agency for Health Care Administration, which licenses and regulates health facilities in that state, would receive the anonymous survey results from each facility and then display the results publicly by showing an aggregate of the composite measures by unit and at the facility overall. The composite measure includes teamwork and hospital management support for patient safety. This Agency provided me with the final version in s. 395.1012(4),F.S.

Florida lawmakers believe that displaying this critical information publicly will pressure hospitals and ambulatory surgery centers to change problematic safety cultures.

In addition to including the standardized core survey questions found in the Patient Safety Culture questionnaire, Florida’s law also requires that the survey includes whether or not each respondent would seek care for the “respondent and the respondent’s family at the surveying facility, both in general and, for hospitals, within the respondent’s specific unit or work area.” In other words, would staff members seek care from their own units or hospital system?  This can be quite compelling on whether the organization is fostering a safe culture of care.

Florida Hospital Association

Interestingly, the Florida Hospital Association (FHA) supported this legislation, only asking that composite results be used so that results would be easier for consumers to understand. The FHA also lobbied for a biennial requirement, to allow hospitals enough time to make changes based on the survey results. The Florida Society of Ambulatory Surgical Centers was not opposed to this legislation, but also did not lobby to have it enacted.

I give the Florida providers a great deal of credit for attempting to ensure that the care provided to Floridians will be the best possible care that is tied to a culture of safety. This new law provides the right intent needed to ensure that appropriate change is made in the healthcare delivery system.

Summary

I hope to see Iowa policymakers and providers do the same for Iowans. Iowa can still become the leader in safe, effective care, but it does require grit, honesty, and a great amount of passion to make transparent quality of care become wildly successful.

Marketing optics that care is always safe is not adequate. Florida has given Iowa a blueprint to implement practical steps to move best-in-nation care forward. Why can’t our state also embrace this approach?

Iowans certainly depend on it.

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