Inspired by NHS, Lieberman calls for reporters to spotlight patient safety improvements

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

Fresh off a trip to powwow with health journalists, academics and officials in England as a Fulbright Senior Specialist, AHCJ Immediate Past President Trudy Lieberman writes on CJR.org about what American health systems can learn from the British National Health Service when it comes to patient safety.

In particular, Lieberman looks at the NHS Institute for Innovation and Improvement, which has pushed a few simple changes that have lead to measurable and marked improvements in several key safety measures and are, she writes, embraced by “almost all U.K. hospitals.”

Since 2007 the Institute has fostered nurse-led innovations to improve care in such areas as patient hygiene, nursing procedures, meals, medicines, and ward rounds that frees up more time to be with patients. Now almost all UK hospitals embrace some of these practices. Positive stats from this “Releasing Time to Care” project show a thirteen percentage point increase in the median time spent on direct care; a seven percentage point increase in median patient satisfaction scores, and a twenty-three percentage point increase in median patient observations.

The innovations include little tricks like nurses donning red pinafores to signal “don’t interrupt me, I’m dispensing medication” and charting patient falls with red dots on a hospital floor plan, so that problem areas can be easily spotted.

According to Lieberman, simple changes like these don’t get the attention or widespread adoption they deserve. Thus, she ends her piece with a call to arms for health journalists, asking them to tell the stories of the sort of simple, easy-to-relate-to steps that are saving lives on both sides of the pond (Oregon, in particular, has been quick to follow the NHS lead in these areas).

So where does the press fit into all this? Media outlets in the UK and the US have something in common—they aren’t much interested in reporting good news and what works. It’s in our journalistic DNA to ferret out the evil, bad, and ugly with the hope that press exposure will change practice. But my visit to the NHS showed that positive change does happen and should be reported. Taylor told me she tried to interest British journos in some of the Institute’s achievements but got “not a sniff.”

“Journalists don’t celebrate success,” she said, “but innovation is to be shared.” Nor has there been any interest from U.S. reporters. CareOregon hasn’t sent out any press releases partly because the results are just coming in and because officials fear that the U.S. stereotype of the NHS is so powerful the program might die a-borning. If I were still a local consumer reporter, I would forget about all that ambiguous, hard-to-interpret data about hospital quality and look for concrete improvements patients and families can relate to, like red pinafores and scorecards for reducing falls. Then I would make a how-to comparison chart showing which hospitals were embracing some of the simple technologies that appear to work.

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