Bob Aulicino, chief operating officer at Brooklyn Hospital Center, told “60 Minutes” late last month that at the time one-third of the hospital’s workforce had been infected by the coronavirus. Five had died.
Among them was Ed, a patient transporter nicknamed “the mayor.” Hospital staff lined the hallways and prayed as his body was carried away.
This is the quiet courage and terrible sacrifice that a career in healthcare sometimes demands. Until COVID-19, many Americans took our caregivers for granted. Now they cheer workers arriving for shift changes and spring for free pizza for paramedics. Hopefully this past-due recognition of our healthcare workforce will remain long after we vanquish the virus.
As part of that, post-pandemic America must launch a long-overdue reckoning with healthcare safety. When one-third of a hospital’s workforce succumbs to an infection, not only are the workers hit, but patients are at risk too. With or without the threat of COVID-19, a variety of infections and viruses harm everyone. Patient safety relies on worker safety and vice versa. The coronavirus teaches us that we must focus on both.
We can start by counting harmed patients and harmed workers on the same spreadsheet. Long before the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that 1.7 million patients suffer hospital-acquired infections annually, resulting in 99,000 deaths. Analysis of CMS data and other sources estimated preventable deaths from all patient-safety problems total more than 500 a day. These numbers don’t account for the safety of the healthcare workforce. Harm and death for workers are reported from an entirely different source, primarily the Labor Department and Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which rank healthcare as the least safe industry for workers in the U.S., riskier than mining or construction. We need to count these patients and workers in one place, because they are all facing one problem: unnecessary suffering in our healthcare delivery system.
In light of this, the Leapfrog Group made a series of one-time changes to our survey process this year, so health systems can maintain vital accountability for patient safety, while at the same time making it easier for their workforces to focus on fighting the virus. For the first time in our 20-year history, hospitals can forgo submitting a new Leapfrog Hospital Survey if they reported last year. For those still wishing to update their results for 2020, and for ambulatory surgery centers, we extended the deadline and streamlined requirements.
We do this because the capacity of our healthcare workers to do their job—with absolute precision and excellence—is not just a healthcare issue, but a pillar of our country’s economy and national security. We now recognize that new cures and technological advances are interesting and worth investing in, but so are old-fashioned bread-and-butter fundamentals, like personal protective equipment, hand hygiene and infection prevention. Even a simple shortcoming in those fundamentals can destabilize our country.
But traditionally we tolerate those shortcomings. We accept excuses that some health system leaders make, that they are busy with other more pressing issues than all those safety fundamentals.
The haunting image of workers lining the hospital hallways paying respects to “mayor” Ed in Brooklyn reminds us why that must change. At Leapfrog, post-pandemic we intend to accelerate our work on public reporting and accountability for the safety of every hospital and ambulatory surgery center in the country—and we include workforce safety in that equation. That is how we will show our gratitude for the entire workforce, and our respect for the patients and families who deserve reassurance for the trust they place in them.
What will your legacy be post-pandemic? Let’s share this one: that we journeyed through this time of fear and death with courage. From now on, we will salute every brave caregiver and honor the dignity of every patient.