Anniversaries are special. They acknowledge events from personal to the historic. I just celebrated an anniversary that met both those criteria: 25 years of marriage. I did so in a place marking the centennial of its designation as a national park – a true American wonder – the Grand Canyon.
It goes without saying that the place is gobsmacking: it literally takes your breath away. It is no easy feat to navigate the options for what can be done while you are there – the food, the views, the trails, the crowds, the mules! To make the trip really monumental however, visitors and staff need to keep safety in mind. Just as clinicians, patients and families do while they are in the hospital. They need to get informed, prioritise activities and trust judgment to manage risk.
Distributing good, freely available information
The Grand Canyon Visitor’s centres and trail heads provide a cornucopia of maps, pamphlets and booklets highlighting options for activities. Making information and data available is key to keeping a visitor to the Canyon free from harm. Similar to trail maps noting loose rocks, unmaintained walkways and mudslide potential, the US Pennsylvania Patient Safety Authority (PSA) models the important mission of transparency by sharing what they learn about threats to safety. The organisation has been collecting and analysing adverse event and other data for 15 years. The Authority disseminates it not only to generate action within their state, but throughout healthcare. Their new open access journal, Patient Safety, continues down a trail established by the PSA newsletter. This work will help all of us progress by providing insights to manage both unseen and known obstacles to safety.
Grand Canyon National Park offers a wide array of choices for visitors. If you only have a day or two in the region, prioritising what hike to take and when to go takes some planning. Just as in safety where the options, tools and improvement goals can become overwhelming. It is crucial to have a method to sort things out. In both instances there is so much to do! Recently the US Veterans Administration (VA) health system published a paper on the process they use to prioritise efforts in their system. They summarised an approach that rests on a foundation of learning practices that could be helpful for all of us to consider in moving forward.
Trusting your gut
My husband in his college days hiked down the Canyon to the Colorado river and back up three separate times. Those treks gave him experience that enabled him to know when “worry” was worth listening to as we ventured down a rugged, steep, trail during our visit. We went down and came back up into the Canyon safely. A recent study from the US, published in JAMIA Open, looked at the accuracy of nursing judgement as a barometer for patient deterioration. The “Worry Factor” proved to be a darn good signal – over 75% of deterioration situations were correctly identified by nurses ahead of time.
Then there are the others
Do you ever wonder “what the ???” when you see people doing something in a park – there are signs everywhere NOT to do ... but they do it anyway? Scampering up rocks behind the safety railing, feeding squirrels, trudging down a rocky trail in flip flops! Safety messages are posted all over the park in an effort to keep Grand Canyon visitors safe. Of course, humans being human, don’t always follow the advice due to arrogance, language issues or a myriad of factors – the distraction caused by the beauty and awe of the place being one of them. Same goes for healthcare. Unintended consequences of process and environment complexity can derail efforts to keep patients safe. Bureaucracy can undermine efforts to keep large systems resourced to provide high quality care delivery, as we heard in a recent examination of the US Indian Health Service. Despite efforts to monitor opioid prescribing practices of physicians, the behaviours are notoriously persistent. Transparency and accountability for failure, while heralded as core attributes of safe care, are not always available to patients.
Patient safety and life are both grand adventures that we can navigate through the effective use of information, prioritisation and sound judgment. I hope you all have as good a partner in your journeys as I have had in mine.