Accountability is the glue that ties commitment to the result.

Donna Sollenberger, EVP & CEO, UTMB Health SystemOn Wednesday, I had the pleasure of speaking at a Lunch & Learn for Health System leadership about the importance of accountability for both individuals and members of leadership. I am sharing it today via the Health System Intranet for you to review. Whether you are a manager, director or individual staff member, there are worthwhile reminders in the presentation for all of us.

After the presentation, I began thinking about how important the principle of accountability will be to achieving our goal of Best Care this year. You will recall that Best Care is an initiative we are implementing in response to University of Texas System Chancellor William McRaven’s challenge that UTMB rank in the top 20 of academic medical centers by August 31, 2017 (as measured by the Vizient* Quality & Accountability Study).

In Stephen Covey’s book “The 4 Disciplines of Execution,” he contrasts an organization that thinks conventionally with one that thinks in terms of both individual and collective accountability. In the organization with conventional thinking, team accountability is always top down: “We meet with the boss periodically and s/he lets us know how we’re doing and what we should focus on next.” In the organization used for contrast, the individuals on the team collectively share accountability for achieving goals and results: “We make commitments and then we’re accountable to the boss; but more importantly, we are accountable to each other for following through.”

A culture of accountability is crucial to achieving goals, particularly when the storms of change and multiple priorities are whirling around us. Often in these types of environments, teams end up breaking apart because individuals decide to go off on their own to “just get it done”. The goal becomes increasingly difficult to achieve if, within the whirlwind, we are also trying to change the behaviors of a lot of people.

With this in mind, I started thinking about how much we have going on right now. We are really going to need to buckle down, prioritize our work, and maintain a steadfast focus on achieving Best Care, especially because reaching this goal will require changing the behaviors of many people and teams. Failure to achieve Best Care is not an option, because it is the right thing to do for our patients!

everstThe work that we must do to deliver on our promise of Best Care reminds me of the book, “Into Thin Air,” which tells the story of two teams of climbers who attempted to get to the summit of Mount Everest. The first team included the author of the book, Jon Krakauer. He wrote about the numerous adversities his team encountered as they tried to reach the summit. As blizzards, high winds and altitude sickness began to affect the team, certain members decided to split off on their own in an attempt to get to the top. Although each climber had the same goal, by setting out on their own, they abandoned the team and discarded discipline and accountability to each other. The results were disastrous as the weather conditions proved too much for eight of the climbers who ultimately lost their lives.

The second team of climbers included a blind climber, Erik Weihenmayer. If the group succeeded, Erik would become the first blind person to reach the top of Mt. Everest. The biggest difference between this group and first is that at the end of each day, they huddled together in what they called a “tent meeting” to talk about what they had accomplished and what they had learned. The team used the meetings to review their strategy, make needed adjustments in their approach to the climb, and define each member’s role. They also decided who on the team would go ahead to clear the path and secure the ropes so that Erik could climb.

Erik characterized the teamwork this way: “Our team stuck together and took care of each other, which gave me the courage to finish.” The result? On May 25, 2001, the team reached their goal, and Erik Weihenmayer became the first blind person to stand on the summit of Mt. Everest.

There are so many lessons to be learned from this story, but here are some of the critical ones that we will need to implement to ensure we achieve Best Care:

  • Form teams that have specific goals for achieving Best Care.
  • Make certain that the team has their specific goal, target and deadline assigned and understood.
  • Encourage the team to engage in developing the plan to achieve the goal.
  • Make sure that everyone on the team understands their role, including the role of the leader.
  • Hold each other accountable for making contributions to the team. Speak up in a kind and understanding way to help a team member who is not fulfilling their role on the team—encourage them, but also be firm about the fact that everyone on the team has to do their part in order to deliver Best Care to every patient, every time.
  • Meet regularly and make adjustments along the way.
  • Celebrate milestones and congratulate individuals who demonstrate exceptional effort along the way.
  • Most importantly, ensure that the patient and their loved ones are at the center of all decisions. This is not about “us” or “me”. It is about doing what is best and right for the patient.

Accountability is critical to any organization’s success. Even if we have all the goals, priorities and metrics set, without accountable leaders, teams and individuals, we cannot achieve our goal. If we commit to these actions, on August 31, 2017, we will have achieved our goal of Best Care.

*Vizient was formerly known as UHC.

accountability

If I bought a thank you card to match the size of my appreciation, it wouldn’t fit in your mailbox!

As we approach the end of Nurses’ Week & Health System Week, I want to remind each of you of how important you are to UTMB Health. Our success as a healthcare provider depends on the positive interactions you have each day with our patients and visitors, your willingness to do what is in the best interest of the patient, and your unrelenting quest to deliver the best care to our patients.

Last week, I had a firsthand opportunity to witness the wonders you work every day when one of my family members became a patient. The week became one of comparison and contrast. Our experience started out at another hospital about an hour away. Without going into the details of that experience, I will say that there was a point where my family member wondered out loud if the nurses, technicians, doctors and other staff even cared about the people who were there to receive care.

I asked my family member why they felt that way, and I wholeheartedly agreed with their response. In a waiting room jammed with people, there was no communication. Staff sat around and visited or looked at their phones and never communicated with the patients who were waiting to be seen. It took almost six hours to get to the exam room from the waiting room. During that time, the only communication we had with anyone was when someone from our family actively went up to the desk to ask when we might be seen. Each time the answer was the same: “I have no idea. It’s busy tonight.” It was true—the place was so busy, patients were being placed in rooms that had not even been cleaned. In short, it truly seemed like no one cared about the patients or even cared about their job.

The next morning, we chose to come to UTMB, and in contrast, my family member’s experience was light-years apart from the experience of the night before. After we got the patient settled into the room, several nurses, physicians and residents came into the room to get things started. My family member commented to me that they were so relieved to be at UTMB: “It is obvious that they really care about their patients. I always feel well cared for and safe when I am here.”

Naturally, I could not help but wonder if the fact that my name was “Sollenberger” was part of the reason for this service, but as I watched other patients in the area, what I witnessed makes me feel certain that the staff members here treat all patients alike—with respect, compassion and concern for their privacy and safety.

To me, it is odd that a patient would even have to be concerned about whether or not other people are eavesdropping in on what they are telling their caregivers. It is odd to me that a patient would ever have to worry about their safety while in the hospital. It is concerning to me that a patient should have to be concerned about acquiring an infection from dirty rooms, soiled linens, or from people entering their room without washing their hands. It is concerning to me that a patient would have to worry about whether or not they have a voice in their care.

At the other hospital, all of these concerns were valid. At UTMB, they were not. At UTMB, each person treated our patient with the utmost courtesy and attention. Each person who came in contact with our patient followed the proper protocols for patient identification, each person performed hand hygiene, and each person explained in detail what to expect and asked if the patient had any questions. Each interaction with a nurse or physician made it clear that we were at the center of their work and decision-making. As support staff interacted with the patient—whether when cleaning the room, transporting the patient, or delivering meals—it was clear that they genuinely cared about the patient and took their role in the care process very seriously.

Fortunately, we were able to leave the hospital last Friday. We are so relieved that our family member is on the mend. However, we simply cannot forget the feeling of care and compassion that each person with whom we interacted demonstrated as they went about doing an exceptional job. What will not leave us is the sense of confidence we had in the total care experience. It simply was the BEST!

So, to every person who cares for or interacts with our patients, THANK YOU! Thank you for blending compassion with your care. Thank you for showing respect for the patient, regardless of circumstances. Thank you for stopping to listen, even when you are busy beyond belief. But most of all, thank you for treating your work at UTMB as more than a job or a paycheck. You are setting the bar high for all healthcare professionals in the Greater Houston area. You are making UTMB known as a place where everyone truly works together to work wonders.

HAPPY HEALTH SYSTEM WEEK! HAPPY NURSES’ WEEK! And because I cannot say it enough, thank you!

Thank You

Repair the Roof When the Sun Is Shining

Donna Sollenberger, EVP & CEO, UTMB Health SystemPresident John F. Kennedy once said, “The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining.”

It’s true—most of the time, we don’t go about our day with an expectation that an adverse event will occur. But unfortunately, sometimes there are emergency situations, whether or not we are prepared for them. And sometimes in health care, people make mistakes that result in patient harm, despite having the best intentions when caring for someone. This is why it is so important that at UTMB, we devote ourselves every day to promoting patient safety, environmental safety, proper patient identification, medication safety, infection control and effective communication, whatever our role may be.

For some time now, the Health System has been on high alert, busily preparing for our Joint Commission re-accreditation survey. However, the preparations and safety measures on which we are currently so acutely focused are things we should always be doing to ensure the safety of our patients and staff. Whether it is focusing on prevention, communication, processes, documentation, or ensuring pathways are clear in case of emergency, we must always be alert. Our re-accreditation survey window, which extends through the next two months, has been a great opportunity to reinvigorate our current efforts to ensure we are providing the safest possible care for our patients, families and one another.

Just as achieving high reliability in health care is a daily endeavor, our successful completion of the survey will require the cooperation and support of every provider and staff member. After the survey, our competitors, affiliates, managed care and insurance companies, referring physicians and, most impor­tantly, our patients and their families will be able to read the details of our performance. I believe the results they see will truly reflect that every UTMB faculty member, clinician and employee at every level is committed to providing excellent patient care!

Why is a good accreditation survey so important? The Joint Commission accreditation survey is a nationwide seal of approval indicating that UTMB meets high quality and safety perfor­mance standards. It says we deliver the best care to all of our patients in a safe environment. Therefore, we must remain committed to zero patient harm, a culture of safety, and continual process improvement. Never ignore or tolerate unsafe conditions, behaviors and practices, and when or if we see something that could be unsafe or cause harm, we must communicate clearly and close the loop on conversations with our team. If needed, escalate issues. It’s simply the right thing to do for our patients.

Our success on the survey will require everyone’s familiarity with Joint Commission requirements in their particular area, and I have full confidence in our teams that we will be fully prepared for the survey. Please review the materials provided on UTMB’s Joint Commission website, including readiness checklists and the preparedness handbook. If you are a manager or supervisor, review employee readiness tips with your team when you have your weekly relay meetings, especially handbook sections “How to Participate in the TJC Survey” and “Other Helpful Hints for the Survey” on pages 12-13.

Spanish novelist, poet and playwright Miguel de Cervantes once said, “To be prepared is half the victory.” Perhaps the other half is to remain vigilant!

If you have questions about Joint Commission standards, please contact Janet DuBois, Associate Director of Accreditation. For more information on Joint Commission Accreditation preparedness in your area, please visit http://intranet.utmb.edu/qhs/TheJointCommission

Thank you for your dedication to delivering excellent care and service to our patients and families!

Unless we think together, we will fail to get the best out of one another!

Donna Sollenberger, EVP & CEO, UTMB Health SystemThere once was an executive named Joe, who worked for a medical device company. Joe was very worried about the device that he was working on. He thought that it was too complicated, and he thought that its complexity created margins of error that could really hurt patients.

He wanted to find a way to help, but when he looked around his organization, nobody else seemed to be at all worried. So, he didn’t really want to say anything. After all, maybe they knew something he didn’t. Maybe he’d look stupid. But he kept worrying about it, and he worried about it so much that he got to the point where he thought the only thing he could do was leave a job he loved.

In the end, however, Joe did find a way to raise his concerns. And what happened then is what almost always happens in this situation—it turned out everybody had exactly the same questions and doubts! So now Joe had allies, and everyone on his team was thinking about how to solve the problem together. And yes, there was debate and argument, but that allowed everyone around the table to be creative, to solve the problem, and to change the device.

By speaking up, Joe wasn’t undermining anyone’s work. In fact, he was improving the overall quality of the team’s work and protecting others from harm. Joe had always been passionately devoted to his organization and the higher purposes that the organization served, but he had always feared the conflict that would result from speaking up. When he did finally speak up, he discovered that he had not only contributed much more to the team than he had ever imagined, but his colleagues did not think negatively of him—they thought of him as a leader.

The story above was borrowed from a presentation by Margaret Heffernan, a writer and keynote speaker who frequently presents on how conflict avoidance and selective blindness can lead organizations astray. Fear of conflict is the very thing that leads to communication breakdowns and broken processes, which in turn, result in preventable errors.

We know from the premise of our Culture of Trust that significant safety failures are almost never caused by isolated errors committed by individuals. Rather, they result from multiple, smaller errors in environments with serious underlying system flaws. This is why regular feedback and communication is important.

A couple weeks ago, I shared a story about my own experiences with constructive feedback, and how at times, I have also found it uncomfortable to give and to receive. However, I realize the importance of constructive conversations, and even though they may involve a difference of opinion, they are a very necessary part of conducting safe, effective and successful work for several good reasons:

  1. We don’t always have an internal cue that lets us know that we’re wrong about something until it’s too late.
  2. Without a shared understanding of people’s points of view when it comes to concerns, people might blame problems on other people, and not where it actually should be, like broken or inefficient processes.
  3. Continual two-way feedback allows people to focus on one or two areas for improvement, rather than having to address a much larger problem that has already caused harm or will require significant intervention and time to resolve.

If we truly care about providing the safest care for our patients, we will be committed to speaking up. Continual quality and safety improvement is the right thing to do. As we observed in Joe’s case, speaking up helped the team and the individual to achieve success. That is why we have to be willing to listen to and consider what others are saying to us. Individually, we must keep an open mind and be willing to work through problems strategically. As a team, we know this is important because it will ultimately help us succeed. Unless we think together, we will fail to get the best out of one another!

Whether we have a gut feeling about the condition or functionality of a device, or we feel concerned that a care process may be unsafe, we need to act with safety in mind and speak up. In health care, we are accountable for our own actions and for those of our team. As we go about our important work, let’s be conscious of any system design that may potentially cause harm if we do not identify the flaws and fix them before a patient is affected. Instead of being afraid of conflict, we have to address the issues head-on.

My job is to make sure that you have what you need to be able to take care of our patients. If you don’t, my hope is that you will make your manager aware, and if you are the manager and you cannot get what you need to ensure your team can provide the right care at the right time in the right way for your patients, you will continue to escalate the matter, without fear of consequence, until you get a resolution. This does not mean that the decision will always be exactly what you want or asked for, but you should receive an answer and a resolution that leaves you with a sense of closure.

Remember: “You can blame people who knock things over in the dark or you can begin to light candles. You’re only at fault if you know about the problem and choose to do nothing.” – Paul Hawken

Create a culture in which excellence can flourish.

Donna Sollenberger, EVP & CEO, UTMB Health System“Whatever you or the public may consider quality to be, this definition is always a safe guide to follow: Quality is never an accident; it is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, intelligent direction and skillful execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives.” ~Will A. Foster

Each New Year is a chance to commit to what we hope to achieve in the future. Last week, we established four areas in which we will focus to be successful this year: continued investments in our people, quantum leaps in quality and safety, transparency with our outcomes, and the wise use of our resources. In this first Friday Flash message of FY16, I’d like to explore our focus on quality.

Quality is defined as the standard of something measured against other things of a similar kind—the degree of excellence of something. It can mean everything from caliber or condition, character or worth, and it can be good or poor. Defining health care quality, however, is a little more technical. In fact, if you conduct an internet search for the words “health care quality” you’ll find a long list of organizations working to promote health care quality in hospitals, and you’ll also see numerous guides on how to improve in areas like patient outcomes, 30-day readmissions, and healthcare-associated infections. You may even find an infographic or two on reimbursement calculations!

To make a long story short, much of what is out there is written by the health care industry for the health care industry—and it is complex! As an industry, we even have had to find a way to state it simply to steady our focus. The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), the federal government’s leading agency, defines quality health care as “doing the right thing for the right patient, at the right time, in the right way to achieve the best possible results.”

But what do our patients and their families think “quality” health care means, and what do they expect of us when we say that we are committed to quality? Several years ago, in an issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), Dr. Allan Detsky, an internist and health policy expert at the University of Toronto, identified criteria that patients expect when asked what they really want from health care.

He found, as one would expect, that patients want the best health care—they want to know that their care team is highly qualified and experienced, and they want to know the care they will receive is reliable, based on feedback from people they know, a referring physician, or other patients. This is not to say that patients don’t value statistics—our quality performance is currently publicly reported, so patients can compare us against other providers and know whether or not we are an excellent place to come for health care. It’s simply that they are more focused on whether the treatments they will receive will work in their specific case or condition.

The list of criteria is long, but the following are the most important aspects of care patients identified:

  • Timeliness. Patients desire access to services in a timely fashion.
  • Kindness. Patients want to be treated with kindness, empathy, and with respect for their privacy.
  • Hope and certainty. Even in dire situations, patients want to have hope and be offered options that may help. Patients and families are uncomfortable with uncertainty about diagnoses and prognoses. Therefore, they want to feel well informed, participate in decision making, and prefer active strategies.
  • Continuity, choice, coordination. Patients want continuity of care and choice. They want to build a relationship with a health care professional or team in whom they have confidence and have that same person or team care for them in each episode of a similar illness. They want the members of their health care team to communicate with each other to coordinate their care.
  • Privacy. Patients want to be hospitalized in their own room with their own bathroom and no roommate (this is something we proudly offer our patients at UTMB).
  • Low out-of-pocket costs. Patients want to pay as little as possible from their own pocket at the point of service delivery.
  • Medications and surgery. Patients prefer treatments that they perceive will require little effort on their part. Essentially, they want to feel “well taken care of”.

There is a much more important, patient-focused reason for making quality improvements: it’s the right thing to do. When we safely heal people and they have a positive experience in our care, they are more likely to follow through with their doctor’s advice and manage their disease processes, which leads to better patient outcomes and healthier patients in the future.

So, let’s focus on our patients’ experiences, with the understanding that they already trust us to do the right thing by delivering safe, evidence-based care and they trust us to monitor our own performance, much in the same way that we all trust airlines to make sure the plane is functioning well before takeoff!

Every individual in every role at UTMB impacts the patient experience in one way or another. This is why we must all focus on making the necessary changes to create a culture in which excellence can flourish. Whatever our work entails, we should reflect on the following:

  • Do we work together as a team, and are we committed to a culture of trust and safety, in which we can express our thoughts and concerns and constructively think together?
  • Do we demonstrate integrity by always doing the right thing for our patients and their families?
  • Do we show compassion and respect to all, so we not only work well together, but so that we are able to comfort patients and families during challenging times, or support them so they are motivated to heal? Do we promptly respond to patient and family concerns, whether by phone or the call button? Are we willing to take the time to explain things clearly and answer all of their questions?
  • Do we value diversity so that we can understand patients’ perspectives and preferences and fully engage them and their families in making decisions about their care and treatment?
  • Are we committed to lifelong learning, so that we are able to apply new knowledge and always explore better ways to enhance outcomes while remaining vigilant to assure patients’ safety?

If we are firmly committed to quality, and we practice safety measures the same way, every patient, every time, we will not only improve our performance, but we will be better able to focus on the experience of our patients and their families. At UTMB, we should always be able to look people directly in the eye and say: “The care you will receive at UTMB Health will be the same care I would want my most cherished of loved ones to receive.”

Trust: The Most Essential Ingredient

Donna Sollenberger, EVP & CEO, UTMB Health SystemLast Friday, I began physical therapy to rehabilitate my knee. On my way to the appointment, I was incredibly nervous. I had been told by my doctor that any slight movement could cause the patella to slip, and if it did, I would face the potential of surgery.

As I got myself into the passenger seat of the car, I started worrying about all sorts of things. What if we got into an accident and I injured my knee? What if I started movement of the knee at therapy, and the patella slipped?

Once in the treatment room, my physical therapist, Patrick, began explaining to me that we would start out by “loosening” the knee, seeing how far we could bend it, and we would end the session with trying to ride the stationary bicycle (only using some simple back and forth motions, not full rotations).

To say I was reluctant to let Patrick begin therapy on my knee was an understatement! I am so used to being in control, and at that moment, I was anything but in control. As I halfheartedly let Patrick begin therapy, I realized that in order for this to work, I had to follow his lead and completely trust him with the process. Without trust, this situation was not going to get any better. He was the expert; I was not.

Then, I remembered a quote by Stephen Covey about trust: “Trust is the glue of life. It is the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It is the foundational principle that holds (together) all relationships.”

As I did the exercises over the next hour, I began to think about how many times we are called upon in our lives to trust one another. Why was I so quickly able to trust Patrick in this instance? I trusted him because he had been my therapist four months earlier after a previous surgery, and the results were exceptional. I developed trust in his work, and the outcome of that trust was a well-functioning knee. I remember so many people commented on how well I was walking, they couldn’t even tell that I had surgery.

In many respects, developing trusting relationships is not unlike the work we do at UTMB, particularly in patient care. Our patients trust us to help them and to do the right thing. For that to happen, we must effectively communicate with any number of individuals on the care team. Creating a culture of safety requires trust and respect of all people working together on behalf of the patient.

A culture of safety does not happen when people are afraid to speak up. When people don’t speak up, there is no trust, and that has the potential to be harmful. We all have a responsibility to speak up when we see that shortcuts are being taken, rules are being bent, or that the system or process has the potential to do harm. As a member of the team, we must be ready to graciously welcome the feedback, because we realize that concerns are being voiced purely out of concern for someone’s safety and well-being.

Anytime a person speaks up and they are responded to with disrespect or disregard, trust is eroded, and the person who spoke up will be much less likely to speak up in the future. The person who will be harmed in such a scenario is innocent: the patient. That is not at all what we want.

In a culture of safety, the person who speaks up also has a responsibility to do so in a caring and respectful manner. It is hard to admit one is wrong or about to take a risky shortcut, so if the communication is not handled respectfully and tactfully, a loss of trust is also at stake. It is important not to point blame at the receiver of the message—no one wants to feel blamed; rather, the concern is being voiced in the context that it is helping to avoid a potential mistake.

I recently read an article about why people are reluctant to speak up, and I can relate to each reason:

  • Confronting people is difficult; too many people prefer to avoid conflict rather than respectfully addressing the issue
  • Others feel that speaking up is “not their job”
  • Some are not confident that speaking up will do any good
  • And other obstacles are time and fear of retaliation

My physical therapy has shown me the importance of trust in carrying out my plan of care, but I also feel I have a responsibility to speak up if any of the therapy movements are causing me pain or I do not “feel right”. The saying, “no pain, no gain” may be true in some instances, but it is better that I speak up and let Patrick consider if we should continue or not. If I do not, I am not being a responsible participant in my care.

I hope as we go about our work this week, we will think about our personal responsibility to create a culture of trust and safety by respectfully speaking up, or if we are on the receiving end of the message, to graciously accept our colleague’s message.

Always Trust your Instincts

Donna Sollenberger, EVP & CEO, UTMB Health System“Always, always trust your first gut instincts. If you feel something’s wrong, it usually is.”

It was a Thursday morning three weeks ago, and I had started my morning the way I usually do – I got up, got ready for work, and went into the kitchen to grab my lunch from the refrigerator before leaving the house. As I rounded the corner, I was greeted by small bugs all over my kitchen floor! I immediately grabbed the insect spray and started spraying. The bugs were exterminated, but now the floor was very slick. I knew it was too dangerous to leave it that way, so I grabbed a mop and began cleaning the floor.

With the chore completed, I picked up my keys and briefcase, but I remembered I still had not grabbed my lunch. As I started carefully walking across the kitchen floor, it occurred to me that doing this was probably not a good idea—what if the floor wasn’t completely dry and I slipped, or worse yet, fell? The moment after I had that thought and yet took another step, my left leg slipped forward, my right leg bend backward, and I heard something snap. You guessed it; I broke my leg.

I cannot tell you how many times I have replayed that split second in my mind. Each time I think: “What if I had listened to my gut? I knew better, but I did it anyway!” We all have an internal alarm system that alerts us when a situation feels wrong. I ignored my instincts, and now I am dealing with the consequences.

In many ways, this reminds me of conversations we have had about patient safety and our own efforts at UTMB to create a safer environment for our patients and employees. Our culture of safety demands that we should always speak up and stop what we’re doing if we see or even instinctively feel that something could have the potential to harm a patient.

Last week, the National Patient Safety Foundation released a report entitled, “RCA2: Improving Root Cause Analyses and Actions to Prevent Harm.” The report asks hospitals and health care providers to approach close calls or observed systemic flaws with the same rigor that they do when a major safety event occurs.

The report says that even though the use of the term “culture of safety” is common in health care today, as an industry we have not really made the necessary progress, because creating this culture involves “hard, continuous work and can challenge the status quo.” The report points out that often, safety event reporting systems like our Patient Safety Net (PSN) are used to report what has already happened, not what could have happened, simply based on the system’s design.

As health care providers, we must constantly evaluate the systems in which we are delivering care, and when we are concerned that any system may have flaws, we need to act on those instincts. If we do not, we may be putting our patients at risk.

Once, in a hospital at which I’d worked, a nurse submitted a PSN report to document that the new tubing we had transitioned to for IV delivery was occasionally crimping, thus slowing the delivery of the patient’s medication. Our safety team went to the unit, looked at the new tubing, and realized the nurse was correct. They immediately ordered new tubing, replaced it throughout the hospital, and addressed the problem.

In this instance, the nurse’s instincts were right, and she acted on her instincts. Although we will never know the actual number of patients’ lives that were positively affected by this nurse’s decision to act on her instinct, what we do know is that we were able to correct a system flaw before any patient’s well-being was compromised.

I am certain there are countless stories we could tell of nurses, physicians, residents and other health care staff who have acted on their instincts to keep patients safe. The point is that they acted.

As we go about our important work, let’s be conscious of any system design that may potentially cause harm if we do not identify the flaws and fix them before a patient is affected. Let’s act on our instincts. I certainly wish I had three weeks ago!

Teamwork and Trust

Donna Sollenberger, EVP & CEO, UTMB Health SystemContinuing with last week’s theme of college basketball (and in honor of March Madness), I thought it would be interesting to talk about some of the different aspects of basketball that foster teamwork and trust. It is fascinating to me that a group of individuals can join together as a team, and even though many of the team members may have never played together in the past, they can become good enough over the course of two to four years that they can always count on one another to be at a particular place on the court during a set point in a specific play.

Practice after practice, the team drills the offensive and defensive plays developed by their coach to become consistent, and through this intense practice and repetition, the plays become second nature—the team develops an intense trust of one another and their coach, and decisions about passing and shooting become instinctive.

The one move that amazes me most is the blind pass, which occurs when the player with the ball looks in one direction but passes in another. This is done to confuse the opposing team’s defense. It is not an easy move, and it is definitely risky, but when it happens and works, it is truly remarkable. I remember the first player I ever saw do this with any regularity was Pistol Pete Maravich, but other greats such as Isaiah Thomas, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Steve Nash and Michael Jordan all also used this pass with some regularity. And most of the time, this type of pass successfully caught the other team off guard, resulting in points scored.

I would imagine in order to effectively carry off the blind pass, each member of the team must understand everyone’s roles well, knowing they can count on one another to be where they should be at a specific moment and time, doing their defined job; they also have to believe their teammates are sufficiently capable. This is really the only way any team can optimally perform!

In many respects, we have our own blind passes in health care. For example, think about how important it is for each member of the team in the emergency department to know their own role as well as that of others on their team. They must trust and have confidence in one another. When seconds matter, as they often do in the ER, being able to act deliberately, consistently and predictably can mean the difference between life and death. And, it is the same in the operating room and on the inpatient units when acting decisively is critical to the outcome for the patient.

In the clinics, the pressure of time may not be as intense, but when a patient needs an appointment or calls with an issue they need to discuss with us, it is important for each member on our team to know their role and perform predictably. If not, we ultimately let the patient down, and our lack of responsiveness could mean we have lost the opportunity to intervene during a time when we could help prevent the patient from becoming increasingly ill and/or having to be admitted to the hospital.

Finally, a good blind pass requires great communication on the court—and, so it is with health care. As we work in teams, being able to be open and forthright with each other regarding the care of each patient is essential. It is critical that every member of the team respects one another and encourages each other to speak up when they are concerned about any aspect of the patient’s plan of care. After all, it is only in an environment of mutual respect and explicit trust that people feel comfortable speaking up. A team is not a group of people who merely work together; a team is a group of people who trust each other.

Phil Jackson is an American professional basketball executive, former coach and former player, who currently serves as president of the New York Knicks in the NBA. He says, “Good teams become great ones, when the members trust each other enough to surrender the ‘me’ for the ‘we’”.

So, how will WE work together to work wonders for our patients and their families today?

Perception is Reality

Last weekend, I had the chance to go to the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta with my cousin and her grandson. I have always loved going to the aquarium. The vibrant colors in nature, like the intense yellow of the angel fish, amaze me. I enjoy watching the sea otters as they play together and swim through the water. My favorite habitat at the aquarium, though, is that of the penguins. I always laugh at their silly waddle and the way they flop forward onto their belly and then slide right into the water—they’re comical on land, but such fast and graceful swimmers.

11-15-14 seeing thingsAs I watched my cousin’s grandson, Cole, observe these sea animals for the first time, I felt almost like it was my first visit. I watched him as he scrutinized each creature’s movements; he laughed as the otters swirled and glided through the water, and he eagerly pointed out a whale shark as it passed over us in the glass tunnel. I have no doubt there will be many more visits in his future!

Watching Cole carefully examine each creature and point out every detail about them made me realize something—as we become more familiar with our surroundings and activities, we often miss the small details. We end up taking what is in front of us for granted, because it becomes a common experience to us.

This is an actual phenomenon, which psychologists refer to as “habituation”. Simply put, it is a decrease in response to something after repeated presentations—the more often we see something, the less we notice it.

This made me think about health care settings, and the fact that as caregivers and employees, we eventually become accustomed to our patient care environments. We become so used to seeing the same setting every day, we may hardly notice when something is out of place, something has collected a little dust, or that a new, unsightly blemish has appeared on a wall, a piece of equipment or furniture.

Because providers and staff are busy focused on patient care, these small details might be easily overlooked; however, patients are looking. I know from my own experience as a patient, when I’m waiting in an exam room, I usually have enough time to give it a thorough inspection. Small details and first impressions have the potential to create a powerful set of assumptions. If patients see something askew or neglected, it may plant seeds of doubt in their minds about quality of care. As an inpatient, one has even more time to examine the details of a room. If something is not working or doesn’t look clean, it may signal to the patient that we don’t care, which is certainly not the case.

Perception is reality to our patients and their families. That’s why as providers and employees we have to practice seeing every aspect of our interaction with patients from their perspective—it’s more important than most of us think.

In fact, a number of studies link a range of aspects of the physical environment to patient safety, patient and family stress and healing, improved overall health care quality and cost, and even staff stress and effectiveness. The physical environment shapes every patient experience and all health care delivery, including those episodes of care that result in patient harm, according to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ). According to the NIH, various studies conducted at ambulatory care centers also show the physical environment has been associated with favorable patient outcomes.

The lists of physical features in care environments that are associated with positive patient experiences can be quite comprehensive, but some of the principle demands are an environment that:

  • Promotes safe behavior by patients, staff and visitors – for example plentiful, visible hand washing and hand disinfection stations.
  • Prevents accidents – for example ensuring spills are promptly cleaned up to prevent slips and falls.
  • Encourages patients and staff to feel reassured – through adequate interior and exterior lighting, visibility of security personnel, and, in the case of inpatient care, secure storage for personal items such as glasses, keys and money.
  • Reduces stress, anxiety and aggression – through the provision of pleasant, comfortable waiting spaces, feedback and communication on waiting times and priorities, attention to ambient temperature, light and noise, etc.

These aspects can be further supported by robust monitoring and reporting, demonstrating a Culture of Trust, and having a sense of personal responsibility and willingness to admit safety concerns and report mistakes, should they occur.

On a regular basis, take an unbiased look at your patient care or service environment. Try seeing it from the patient’s perspective. What would be your first impression of the waiting area? Does furniture or equipment need repair? Is it dirty or scuffed? What does the front desk look like? Is there excessive or old signage? Are patients and family members warmly greeted on arrival? What do the exam rooms and/or inpatient rooms look like? Are ceiling tiles damaged? Is the work area cluttered? Is paint peeling or scuffed?

These are just some examples of things of which we should remain aware. I believe we do a wonderful job at UTMB of providing an excellent care environment, but we should always be vigilant. We need everyone’s help!

  • Report facilities issues that need maintenance; if the problem does not get fixed or you don’t have a response within a week, escalate it to your supervisor
  • Keep clutter out of the hallways
  • Assure all supplies are not expired and that they’re properly stored
  • Check for expired supplies and medications
  • Ensure refrigerator temperature monitoring, proper food labeling, and cleanliness
  • Make sure linens are covered
  • Eliminate dirty, cluttered work areas

It’s very easy to quickly resolve issues that impact patient care by dialing one number: 2-4040. Requests may also be made with each area’s designated Zone Mechanic. Calls will be routed to the UTMB Service Response Center, which has expanded its service to act as the single point of contact for all clinical support services in the following areas: Environmental Service, Pest Control, Food and Nutrition, Clinical Equipment, Nursing Unit Support, Maintenance, Utilities, and In-house Construction.

More information on these topics can also be found on UTMB’s internal web site, The Joint Commission: http://intranet.utmb.edu/qhs/TheJointCommission/default.asp

Thank you for the part you play in keeping UTMB hospitals and clinics beautiful and safe for our patients and our staff!

Safety Doesn’t Happen by Accident

Donna Sollenberger, EVP & CEO, UTMB Health SystemGrowing up, I was somewhat of a rebel. My mother and father were often frustrated with me, because I didn’t want to follow their rules. I couldn’t understand why they got so upset about things like missing curfew, driving outside of town, and having a summer job. I was even more perplexed when they told me they established all of these rules to keep me safe. Really? I thought that sounded a lot like an excuse and not a reason!

But as I became an adult and had children of my own, I experienced what many of us have – I started sounding a lot like my parents when I started creating and enforcing “the rules”. When my kids pushed back, I cringed a little as I heard my own voice echo the words of my mom and dad: “These rules are meant to help you. They’re meant to keep you safe!”

I had to admit, my parents were right—it’s easy to think you’re safe from harm in your own backyard. It’s easy to underestimate that something harmful might happen to us  because the odds seem so small. We sometimes take our safety for granted, not realizing the potential hazards that can be present in our everyday activities. We feel a little overconfident at times, perhaps because we’ve done something so many times before, or we’ve become a little complacent and discount the risks—we think we’re being “safe enough”. However, taking risks and acting hastily are often the very elements that create an environment conducive for an error or accident to occur.

The same is true of safety cultures, and the longer I have worked in health care, the more I have come to appreciate the rules that are in place to keep employees and patients safe. We often emphasize the importance of safety in health care with the patient at the forefront, but the safety of our staff is equally important.

It’s easy to go through the motions of something as common as patient handling, drawing blood, or administering intravenous medications, but these are also some of the most common ways both health care workers and patients can be potentially harmed. Therefore, safety interventions, such as proper hand hygiene and safe lifting techniques, protect not only our patients, but our staff as well. This is why it’s important to practice these safety measures the same way, every time.

A perfect example of a safety intervention in place at UTMB is the barcode medication administration system we recently implemented. This is the system where the nurse scans his or her employee badge, scans the patient’s wrist band, and then scans the medication. Then, the system confirms for the nurse that they have the right patient, the right medication, the right dosage and it’s the right time for administration. Using this system is critical to assuring that we keep the patient as safe as possible. When we follow this process exactly, we almost completely rule out the possibility of a medication error, and that keeps the patient safe!

In areas where we do invasive procedures on patients, rules are in place to assure we are doing the correct procedure. If the procedure is a surgery, for example, the nurse asks the patient to confirm his/her name and birthdate to make sure it is the right patient. Then, the nurse or physician confirms with the patient the procedure they are about to undergo, and they mark the patient’s body on the correct side and specific location where the procedure will be performed. This process is repeated again once the patient is in the procedure room, when the physician calls a “time out”. Here, the physician again confirms the patient’s name and birthdate, the procedure to be performed, and the location. Then, anyone present may speak up to express concerns they have about any aspect of the procedure. These processes are in place to keep the patient safe and to assure that the staff proceed as planned.

If we watch other people on our team for “state to error” risk patterns, every time we see one, it will automatically make us think more about what we are doing. And if what we see is sensational enough, we’ll do more than think about it—we’ll actually react to it. This will not only protect our patients from harm, but we’ll also protect one another.

At UTMB, we work to do everything we can to create a safe and highly-reliable environment for our patients and employees. It is crucial all of our staff remain alert and work together as a team at all times to recognize and avoid potentially unsafe conditions and activities for the safety of all. Remember:

  • Everyone has a part to play in creating a safe and reliable care environment.
  • Slow down. Be methodical and mindful.
  • Support effective safety measures and demonstrate accountability at every step.
  • Report mistakes and system flaws — it is safe and valued.
  • Recognize individuals who act with safety in mind.
  • Speak up when you see something that feels unsafe, if you feel concerned, uncomfortable, or think the team should stop and reevaluate a situation.

Although health care settings are varied and present both common and unique safety issues, interventions to improve safety for patients also improve safety for employees. After all, safety doesn’t happen by accident!

“For safety is not a gadget but a state of mind.”  ~Eleanor Everet