Patient Safety and the Joint Commission

Two of my local hospitals just invested $3 – $4 million dollars in preparation for an inspection of the facilities by the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Hospitals (JCAHO). The cost of the inspection runs in the $10 million dollar range after the preparation costs. The inspection is a high stress situation for the administration because if you fail, or lose your accreditation, the private insurers will void their contract with you and you won’t get paid for the work done.

Medicare through the Center for Medicare Services (CMS) is preferential to JCAHO so much so that they perform 80% of the inspections of hospitals in America. When JCAHO was initially formed it was in response to poor care in small private hospitals in non-urban nonacademic centers. They cleaned that up.

The current version uses up a great deal of money, creating a legion of hospital administrators running around with clipboards and computer tablets without making any meaningful dent in mistakes and outcome results. In a recent study published in the British Medical Journal the outcomes and re-admissions rate for the same problem within 30 days of discharge were compared at hospitals which rely on state surveys of quality and safety as opposed to the JCAHO ten million dollar survey. They found that there was no statistically significant difference.

In a related report hosted by the journal Health Affairs, a review of the 1999 report of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine entitled, “To Err is Human, Building a Safer Health System” was discussed. That controversial report claimed that 44,000 to 98,000 deaths per year occur due to medical errors. They discussed the work of Linda Aiken, PhD, RN, professor and director of the Center for Health Outcomes and Policy Research at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research looked at safety at 535 hospitals in four large states between 2005 and 2016. She called the results disappointing noting improvement based on suggestions in the 1999 report in only 21% of the hospitals surveyed and worsening in 7%. Most of her work involved the staffing and role of nurses which is critical to the quality of the care an institution provides.

Staffing or the ratio of patients cared for per nurse per shift is a critical component of safe patient care. Once a nurse on a non-critical care unit is asked to care for more than four patients the time spent at the bedside nursing diminishes. You cannot recognize problems, complications or changes in your patient’s condition if you are not spending time with them.

It seems to me as a clinician caring for patients in the outpatient and inpatient setting for 40 years that the more time nurses get to spend with patients the better the patients do. Maybe it’s time for government to separate the insurer’s ability to pay hospitals and JCAHO accreditation. Maybe the millions of dollars spent per inspection would be better spent on hiring more nurses per shift plus giving them the clerical and technical support they need to spend more time and care for their patients?

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Deep Vein Thrombosis Prophylaxis, Safety and the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Hospitals

Over the last few years, great emphasis has been placed on preventing blood clots from forming in the legs and pelvis of all hospitalized patients. These blood clots can break off and travel to the lungs causing life-threatening breathing problems and fatal heart arrhythmias and sudden death. Preventing these “venous thromboembolic events” has been a priority of quality organizations like the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Hospitals which inspect hospitals and offer certification if the hospital meets their criteria.

The movement to prevent these clots and sudden death has become so strong that you cannot admit a patient to the hospital without addressing these issues. Physicians must either choose to give injections below the skin with the blood thinner heparin three times a day or the low molecular weight heparin twice a day. You are additionally asked to prescribe mechanical compression stockings to the legs to further reduce the risk.

If you choose not to institute these orders you must clearly write out and outline your objections and reasons for not taking these measures. Even if you document your reasons for not instituting these measures you’re assured of receiving a call from your hospital’s quality care organization.

This all becomes newsworthy because two recent studies called into question the practices. One study concluded that mechanical compression stockings added nothing to the use of blood thinners in preventing deep vein clots. The other study cited that for every 1000 patients treated with blood thinners to prevent pulmonary emboli; you prevented three non-fatal pulmonary emboli at the expense of causing nine bleeding events – four of which are major.  I suspect this data will be discussed in our medical journals and at scholarly meetings and a consensus opinion will be reached on how to proceed. Letters will be written to journals criticizing the methods of these studies and other letters will be written defending them and, ultimately, a common sense approach will be reached.

In the meantime, it would be far more interesting to look at the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Hospitals and determine how they got so powerful that they can mandate procedures which may not have any value and may do harm?  Who are they?  How do they generate income and how much goes to who and why?

It is a fact that in the state of Florida, private insurers like Blue Cross Blue Shield, Aetna, Humana, will not contract with a hospital or institution unless it receives certification from this organization.  A study should be done to see if these JCAHO inspections costing $7-8 million dollars every other year resulted in any reduction of in-hospital errors, iatrogenic illnesses, death rates and serious illness?

Insurers and employers who pick up the “lion’s share” of our health care costs are always asking for accountability and efficiency and want to pay for what works. It would be nice to know if their relationship with JCAHO has made the patient safer or healthier over the last 15 years.