It's time to move beyond the seemingly endless debate over reducing medi- cal errors. Unleashed by the stinging 1999 Institute of Medicine report, To Err is Human, a tsunami of articles, papers, courses, lectures and speeches have been written, published and delivered about the need to reduce medical errors and make healthcare safer.
This torrent of documents and talk is right on target-we must improve our systems and implement better cross-checks to make sure medical mistakes are significantly reduced or eliminated in every healthcare facility throughout the U.S.
That's what every patient expected all along, isn't it? Primum non nocere-first, do no harm.
At the American College of Physician Executives, we think it's equally important to take patient-safety efforts one step further to build patient trust and loyalty.
Respected physician executives are already doing this at some of the most trusted healthcare organizations in the U.S.-Brigham and Women's Hospital, Cleveland Clinic, Johns Hopkins Medical Center, Massachusetts General Hospital and Mayo Clinic, to name a few.
All provider organizations can achieve a higher level of patient trust and loyalty, as well.
Physician leaders across the country are working to put all the critical safety checks in place-computerized physician order-entry systems with their drug interaction alerts, electronic medical records to help ensure safety through quick and easy access to patient histories and pharmaceutical bar-coding to cut down on medication errors.
But merely providing these and other technologically advanced safety systems doesn't guarantee a healthcare provider's patients will trust that provider or be loyal toward it. After all, patients don't see the alerts flashing on the computerized physician order-entry screen. They may not know that the little lines and numbers on their prescription drug bottles help reduce the chances of medication errors.
A good analogy is the desktop computer. A healthcare executive probably doesn't know all of its inner workings-how many instructions the computer's processor calculates per second, what part of the operating system's registry stores information about the applications, or that 107,374,182,400 bytes fit on a 100-gigabyte hard drive.
Instead, the overall impression of a computer is based on what happens when the user turns it on and what is seen on the screen. If someone clicks on the Microsoft Word icon, Word opens and a letter can be written. Click on the Internet browser icon, and there is access to the Internet.
In a healthcare organization, it's what patients actually see and experience-what's on the screen-that creates their overall impression of the organization.
What do patients see and experience when they arrive at a hospital or clinic? Does it inspire confidence? Does the patient's experience exceed expectations? Is patient loyalty being measured and are changes being made to improve performance? Is staff providing top-notch patient service? Does the general public perceive the healthcare organization as safe? Remember that perceptions often carry more weight than reality.
These are just a few of the questions healthcare leaders should be asking. They are the types of questions that trained physician executives can help answer.
Physician executives have a lot to offer when it comes to building confidence and trust among patients. They know the science and, perhaps more importantly, they already share a unique covenant with the patients through the doctor-patient relationship.
With all the publicity surrounding the IOM reports To Err is Human and Crossing the Quality Chasm, it's imperative that all healthcare organizations embrace patient-safety efforts. It's the professional, moral and ethical thing to do.
There is, of course, a good business case to be made for all this, too.
The payoff for patient safety is pretty straightforward: Reduce medical errors and you lower your risk of lawsuits. However, moving beyond patient safety to achieve patient trust and loyalty holds far greater economic benefits.
Trusting patients are repeat patients-and eventually, they become loyal patients. They nurture an organization's image in the community, in effect becoming salespeople for it. They are also more forgiving and less likely to sue if a medical mistake does occur.
There is no doubt that an organization's image in the community truly does play a major role in business success.
According to a recent Cone/Roper Cause-Related Trends Report by Cone, a branding company, eight out of 10 Americans have a more positive image of companies that support a cause they care about in the community.
A survey of human resources executives done by the Conference Board found that a company's reputation in the community is key to attracting and retaining good employees. The survey found that community reputation ranked third out of 21 factors that influence whether someone joins a company.
With patient-safety efforts at an all-time high and the general public paying more attention to medical errors, the time to act is now. Every healthcare organization should be working to harness the energy behind the patient-safety movement and take it a step further to achieve a higher level of patient confidence and trust in the healthcare system and its leaders.
Marvin Kolb is chief medical officer of Kern Medical Center in Bakersfield, Calif., and president of the American College of Physician Executives.