To Err is Human: Medical Errors and the Consequences for Nurses

The Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.
Image via Wikipedia

That medical care can be harmful to your health or even deadly, is not necessarily news to many people. The extent of it within the US health care system and the impact of it on health care providers are not well known. The IOM Report To Err Is Human: Building a Safer Health System (2000) highlighted serious patient safety issues in our health care system and outlines approaches to patient safety improvement. This report emphasized that the vast majority of adverse patient events were the direct result of bad systems and not of bad health care providers. “The focus must shift from blaming individuals for past errors to a focus on preventing future errors by designing safety into the system.” They pointed to the aviation industry as a model for safety design at the systems level. Root cause analysis was applied to understand and try to prevent adverse events. “Never events” were identified as sentinel patient safety events for monitoring purposes in hospitals (these include surgical removal of the wrong body part and inpatient suicides). National level patient safety monitoring databases were developed. Eleven years later where are we in terms of progress on patient safety?

In the April edition of the journal Health Affairs, indications are that we have not improved much and may actually have worsened. A study by Classen, et al reveals that serious preventable adverse events occur in one out of every three hospital admissions. Another study estimates a $17.1 billion annual cost of measurable medical errors in the US.  They point out that the risk of harmful errors in health care in the US is increasing due to the increasing complexity of care and of medical devices and medications. What to do about this? The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality is putting an emphasis on educating patients on ways to advocate for their own patient safety (or parents of pediatric patients). But as Donald Berwick points out in the April 15th Health Affairs Health Policy Brief on improving quality and safety, “Commercial air travel didn’t get safer by exhorting pilots to please not crash. It got safer by designing planes and air travel systems that support pilots and others to succeed in a very, very complex environment. We can do that in healthcare, too.”

I have been thinking about the issue of patient safety and the consequences for nurses because of the recent news of the suicide of a respected local RN, Kimberly Hiatt. She died April 3rd at the age of 50. She had worked as a NICU nurse at Seattle Children’s Hospital for almost the past thirty years. I did not know her personally, but by all accounts she was a devoted and highly capable and compassionate nurse. In fact, Megan Moreno, a pediatrician who did her fellowship at Seattle Children’s Hospital and whose daughter Fiona died in the NICU of congenital health problems describes Kimberly Hiatt in an article published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine (January 2006). She writes, “Our favorite nurse was assigned to us the next day, and she helped us through the difficult task of extubating Fiona.” At the end of the article she expresses particular gratitude to Kim Hiatt, RN, along with her neonatologist.

Kimberly Hiatt committed suicide because of a cascade of adverse events that happened to her in the aftermath of a medication error that resulted in an infant’s death in the NICU at Children’s. This happened in September, 2010 just months after a highly publicized death of a 15 year old autistic boy after routine dental surgery at Children’s, which resulted from an incorrect dose of a Fentanyl patch (a powerful narcotic) prescribed by the dentist. Children’s Hospital changed its policies on the prescribing of narcotics after this incident, but the dentist was not disciplined. Around the same time, an ER doctor at Children’s incorrectly administered a drug to a critically ill patient by IV instead of by an injection in the muscle, and the patient had to be transferred to another hospital because of the complications. The physician was not disciplined.

In contrast, Kimberly Hiatt was fired soon after the infant’s death. Also soon after the infant’s death, Children’s Hospital changed its policies to require stricter control and checks on the administration of the specific medication, calcium chloride, which is considered an especially dangerous drug  in medically fragile infants.  Dr. Hanson, the Medical Director of Children’s Hospital said that it was important that all staff feel safe to report mistakes. The Washington State Nursing Commission put restrictions on her nursing license with a four-year probationary period; with these restrictions no one would hire her to work as a nurse. According to a Seattle Times article (4-20-11), many hundreds of former patients and their family members, as well as nursing colleagues attended her funeral. In the Seattle Times Editorial and Opinion pages today, F. Norman Hamilton, a retired anesthesiologist writes, “The fact that the hospital changed its policies after the death implies that they realized that its policies were inadequate. Despite this, the hospital decided to fire the nurse for an arithmetic error. (…) If we fire every person in medicine who makes an error, we will soon have no providers. (…) It is my belief that if the nurse had been dealt with appropriately—with compassion and insight—that she, today, would be a valuable and happy nurse.”

So I am left with many questions. Why was the nurse treated so differently from the   dentist or physician at the same hospital for similarly serious medication errors? If one in three hospital patients in the US experiences serious preventable adverse events and we know that it’s “the system, stupid,” why are most of our efforts put into educating patients to advocate for safer care? If nurses are simultaneously being told by hospital administrators to report errors and then facing serious retribution for making honest unintentional mistakes—and usually due to unsafe staffing levels they have no control over—what do I teach my students to do? If the suicide of a hospital patient is considered a sentinel “never event,” shouldn’t the suicide of a nurse such as Kimberly Hiatt due to systems errors be considered a “never event?”