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Preventing Harm

An observational study published earlier this summer in the peer-reviewed journal BMJ concluded that around one in 20 patients is exposed to preventable harm in medical care; preventable harm defined as, “unintended physical injury resulting from or contributed to by medical care (including the absence of medical treatment).” 

It’s worth noting for context that not all patient harm is preventable — some measures indicate that up to half of the harm patients experience in healthcare is unidentifiable and/or not preventable. The distinction is not all that surprising. Within our organizations, for example, we nudge employees towards positive health behaviors. Yet no matter what we do, such interventions are only effective for a portion of the population.

As an advocate for data-driven systems that better identify segmental characteristics amongst our employees, drawing attention towards areas of preventable harm presents as an opportunity. 

Providers Should Not Shoulder All the Responsibility

Consider that while we are struggling to provide our workforce with the tools and education they need to successfully navigate the health system, many practitioners within that system are struggling themselves; some are over-worked and burned-out and some are under-trained. Hospitals and doctor’s offices are notoriously filled with sick people and the problems they face each day are indeed difficult to manage. Regardless, maybe it’s time to share some of the responsibility for care. Maybe preventing harm in healthcare settings requires a bit more than what practitioners and providers alone can shoulder.  

Empowering Employees to be More Active In Care

Consider that harm can occur in even the most mundane of health-related tasks. And as we all know, our system is of the most complex variety. To relieve the burden on practitioners alone, patients need to learn how to be more active participants in their own episodes of care. This may be a subject we could enlist our carrier and vendor partners to help educate our employees on. Teaching them how to be more involved with their care, how to be present in every decision being made, and how to become their own advocate could have a lasting impact.

There are tools available out there for this as well. From the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality to the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, there are resources listing simple actions patients can take to stem preventable harm. Top amongst them is communication. 

Communicate with your care team: let all of your doctors know about the medicine you’re taking. Let them know about dietary supplements, vitamins, and herbal remedies as well. Make sure to talk about allergies. Ask questions: if you don’t understand something said in the office or read in the directions on a label, stop and ask. For that matter, stop and ask those touching you if they’ve washed their hands.   

We expect our doctors and nurses to follow best practices for the safety and care of our employees. The time has come for our employees to learn best practices on patient safety. Patients need to learn about and seek out appropriate care. They need to learn the basics about the utilization of health services and the problems caused by over- and under-utilization. They need to communicate with their health team in everyday language and make sure that communication is reciprocated; drug-related and therapeutic instructions should be made crystal clear and in a language, everyone can understand. Patients should be assertive with important health information and never assume that their doctor has all the information they need.  

From the moment they seek care, the choices patients make play a role in how safe and effective that care will be. Doctors, nurses, entire medical systems are working to reduce harm across all treatments and procedures. One way to aid them in this endeavor could be to simply ask, “What are you doing to prevent patient harm?”

Like many things, perhaps simply drawing attention to the subject may help to better address the problem.

Patty Starr bio image

About the author

Patty Starr

Patty Starr is president and CEO of Health Action Council and is responsible for driving the strategic direction of the organization--build stronger, healthier communities where business can thrive. 

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