Dec 8, 2008

How much patient safety is too much?

Recently I read an interesting article about patient safety. The author discussed the growing trend of involving patient's in their care, for example, by asking patients to 'mark' the site of surgery. Is it too much, he asks? Are these patient safety measures being implemented to protect providers against malpractice suits? The author notes,

True, serious medical mistakes do happen. I heard a rumor that a New York doctor accidentally left a barbecue grill inside a patient. Another doctor transplanted a viable liver into the wrong patient's head. Malpractice lawsuits have forced doctors to take unusual measures. Before my wife was wheeled into the operating room at the surgical center, she was given a Magic Marker and told to mark the location of her chemo port with an X. This seemed rather pointless given that the port was clearly poking out of her chest ... On another gurney, a patient waiting to have his knee scoped was asked to write "yes" on the appropriate knee... Maybe this sort of patient participation cuts down on surgical mistakes. Maybe it just reduces doctors' liability. I asked the medical staff. They said it was just one more way of making sure everything went according to plan... Malpractice litigation must be worse than I thought. Do expectant mothers have to draw these helpful diagrams: "Baby comes out here" with an arrow?

The patient safety measure the author is referring to is of course, Universal Protocol, which ensures that marking the procedure site allows staff to identify (without ambiguity) the intended site for the procedure. I'm not sure how many hospitals actually require the patient do the marking, but I am aware of having patients involved in the process. Many of these patient safety measures we hear about, including Universal Protocol, have come about because of cases where hospital staff have made mistakes and done surgery on the wrong limb etc.
So has patient safety gone too far? I don't think so. If we weigh the burden of implementing these patient safety measures against the number of lives that have been saved and the numbers of medical errors which have been prevented - I tend to think we're on the right track. It seems that the direction patient safety is heading these days, we'll be seeing a lot more patient involvement in their care. Involving patients in this manner is not taking the duty away from healthcare providers, but in fact, it's empowering patient's to be partners in their care... and that can't be a bad thing, right?