Mary Otto, a Washington, D.C.-based freelancer, is AHCJ's topic leader on oral health and the author of "Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality, and the Struggle for Oral Health in America." She can be reached at email@example.com.
Priyanka Dayal McCluskey is a business reporter at the Worcester (Mass.) Telegram & Gazette. She is attending Health Journalism 2013 on an AHCJ-Healthier Beat Fellowship, which is supported by The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust.
Massachusetts is famously ahead of other states when it comes to health insurance coverage. Ninety-eight percent of Bay State residents have insurance.
But the state is also way ahead in another area: health care costs. The cost of care is the highest per capita in the country and, consequently, the world, according to Andrew Dreyfus, president and CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts.
Insurers, providers and government regulators have been working, with some success, to curb the rate of health care costs in Massachusetts. Continue reading →
In the wake of several high-profile incidents, The Boston Globe‘s Liz Kowalczyk has assembled a thorough investigation of alarm fatigue in hospitals. Alarm fatigue, for the record, is the idea that the huge arsenal of patient monitors in any given hospital floor are going off so often that nurses become slower in their responses to the alarms. For example, in one 15-bed unit at Johns Hopkins, staff found that, on average, one critical alarm went off every 90 seconds throughout the day.
With the help of ECRI, Kowalczyk has managed to attach some numbers to the issue.
The Globe enlisted the ECRI Institute, a nonprofit health care research and consulting organization based in Pennsylvania, to help it analyze the Food and Drug Administration’s database of adverse events involving medical devices. The institute listed monitor alarms as the number-one health technology hazard for 2009. Its review found 216 deaths nationwide from 2005 to the middle of 2010 in which problems with monitor alarms occurred.
But ECRI, based on its work with hospitals, believes that the health care industry underreports these cases and that the number of deaths is far higher. It found 13 more cases in its own database, which it compiles from incident investigations on behalf of hospital clients and from its own voluntary reporting system.
Kowalczyk also looks at potential solutions to the problem and how some institutions are trying to make changes to eliminate alarm fatigue, including cutting back on unnecessary monitors and having monitor warnings appear on nurses’ pagers or cell phones.
“Yes, this is real, and, yes, it’s getting worse,’’ said Carol Conley, chief nursing officer for Southcoast Health System, which includes Tobey Hospital. “We want to keep our patients safe and take advantage of all the technology. The unintended consequence is that we have a very over-stimulated environment.’’
“Everyone who walks in the door gets a monitor,’’ said Lisa Sawtelle, a nurse at Boston Medical Center. “We have 17 [types of] alarms that can go off at any time. They all have different pitches and different sounds. You hear alarms all the time. It becomes . . . background.’’
Kowalcyzk’s investigation points out that, while alarms do tend to go off when there’s a real problem, it appears that they do so at the expense of also going off when there isn’t.
Monitors can be so sensitive that alarms go off when patients sit up, turn over, or cough. Some studies have found more than 85 percent of alarms are false, meaning that the patient is not in any danger. Over time this can make nurses less and less likely to respond urgently to the sound.
For more specifics on device design issues, see the final subheading, titled “Looking for solutions.”
For a one year, the Joint Commission made routine alarm testing and training part of their accreditation requirements, but dropped the stipulation in 2004 when it felt the problem had been solved.
BMC is in a unique position, thanks to a legal mandate (not shared by its wealthier, Harvard-affiliated competitors) that it “consistently provide excellent and accessible health care services to all in need of care, regardless of status or ability to pay,” McNamara writes. In return, the state is supposed to compensate for its disproportionate load of low-income patients. Instead, the state’s clamping down on Medicare reimbursement.
BMC is locked in a battle with the Patrick administration over dramatic cuts in how the state pays for treating the poor. Barring a last-minute settlement, a Suffolk Superior Court hearing on September 29 will consider the state’s motion to dismiss a BMC lawsuit that challenges Massachusetts’ reimbursement rate. (The state currently pays the hospital 64 cents for every dollar it spends on patients with Medicaid.)
BMC says the new reimbursement formula violates state and federal law, and will sound the death knell for the state’s largest safety-net hospital. The commonwealth says it has the power to set any rate it wants; if BMC finds the payments inadequate, it can simply stop taking Medicaid patients. The state’s argument might have some merit in the case of doctors being free to choose their patients, but it’s a ludicrous posture to adopt toward an inner-city hospital that is required — by state law — to serve all comers.
Universal coverage makes great headlines, helps get politicians elected, and, to be fair, is something that needed happen. But doing so without adequately addressing its cost is going to bankrupt hospitals, especially inner-city ones like BMC. That will hurt the Medicaid and Medicare patients dependent on them.
The Boston Globe‘s Liz Kowalczyk reports that, two years after it was first proposed by a consumer group, the Massachusetts Health Care Quality and Cost Council has decided it won’t publish hospital-wide mortality rates. The problem, it seems, is the lack of an accurate, universal method of computing such numbers.
Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. JudyAnn Bigby, who heads the group that made the decision, said current methodology for calculating hospital-wide mortality rates is so flawed that officials do not believe it would be useful to hospitals and patients and could harm public trust in government.
It appears, Kowalczyk writes, that general hospital mortality rates just aren’t “ready for prime time” quite yet.
The council convened an expert panel, which worked with researchers to evaluate software of four companies for measuring hospital mortality. The problem was that researchers came out with vastly different results when they used the various methodologies to calculate hospital mortality between 2004 and 2007 in Massachusetts, and they could not tell which company’s results — or if any — were accurate.
According to new data from the Massachusetts Health Quality Partners, a coalition that includes doctors, hospitals, and health plans, 83 percent of adult patients said when they called their doctor’s office for care they needed right away, they always or almost always got an appointment quickly.
Fewer patients — 78 percent — reported that they always or almost always got an appointment for a routine check-up or after-hours help as soon as they needed it.
To add some context, Kowalczyk compared the results to numbers from the 2007 survey, which was conducted before Massachusetts had fully boarded the expanded coverage train.
Still, said Barbra Rabson, the group’s executive director, the survey showed slight declines in patient access to their doctors, which could be a warning sign of growing strain in the system. “We need to watch this very carefully,” she said.
In addition to the sort of health care access numbers that bear directly upon reform coverage, the survey also included typical consumer satisfaction-oriented questions. By those measures, at least, care in Massachusetts seems to be improving slightly. The one area of decline? Coordination of care.