Adverse health events and building trust
Since Minnesota led the way in 2003, 27 states have since passed legislation requiring hospitals and clinics to report adverse health events—commonly referred to as medical errors or mistakes—to the public on a yearly basis.Documenting the occurrence of “never events” identified by the National Quality Forum, these reports aim to not only hold individuals and organizations accountable for medical mistakes or oversight, but to promote learning by shedding light on how best to prevent future errors from occurring. Additionally, reporting offers a level of transparency in the health care field as a means of building trust between patients and their health care providers.

Regardless of whether or not your health care organization is required by your state to report adverse health events, it’s likely that there are still internal policies and practices in place to both prevent these events from occurring and establishing protocol for when they do occur.

Many health care organizations are finding it beneficial to open the lines of communication with patients on the topic of adverse health events in order to demonstrate prevention, compassion and honesty. Doing so also holds the potential to build trust between medical professionals and patients.

If this is something your health care organization is interested in doing, here are five tips for communicating adverse health events and concern for patient safety to get you started:

  1. Involve patients in care and education
    Studies have shown that patients who are involved in their care and knowledgeable about procedures and medication are far less likely to fall victim to medical errors. While patients are ultimately responsible for how involved and educated they are, medical staff can encourage and inspire patients to ask questions. Be sure that literature on procedures, diagnoses and medication is readily available and consider forming patient focus groups to ensure that all information and materials are understandable and comprehensive from the patient perspective. Some hospitals have also gone beyond offering literature to hosting detailed conversations and to posting videos online of specific procedures and patient safety protocol.  Use promotional items like personal medical journals and pill boxes to drive the point home and keep safety top of mind.
  2. Participate in Patient Safety Awareness Week
    Each year, the National Patient Safety Foundation (NPSF) hosts Patient Safety Awareness Week. Join in March 6-12, 2011, by registering with the site to receive materials such as posters, fact sheets, brochures, videos and more that aim to drive awareness and inspire patient engagement. Annual awareness campaigns such as this one can also serve to educate and remind staff of important safety procedures. Do something special for your team in appreciation of their dedication to patient safety during this week—host a lunch party in the cafeteria or distribute logo’d swag like doc-shaped stress balls or stethoscope tags.
  3. Prepare staff
    In the case of adverse health events—especially in states that require public reports—the need for a communications plan and media training for spokespeople specific to the events is obvious. However, on a much smaller scale, all staff members should be aware of how to handle inquiries from patients and visitors regarding adverse health events. Reports, if available, should be kept on site in a central location, along with educational information and contact information where concerned patients and visitors should call or e-mail with questions.

Consider special training days to both build awareness and educate staff. Hand out items like clip boards or stickers with the phrase “take care” or “pause for the cause” imprinted on them.

  1. Recognize the power of an apology
    Statistics indicate that one of the leading causes for malpractice litigation is lack of recognition or the absence of an apology. Most people just want to know why something happened and what can be done for them. Acknowledging when a mistake has been made, apologizing for the mistake and taking action to correct the mistake are all commonly accepted tenets of managing adverse health events. This truth, however, extends beyond these events to encompass the entire customer service experience. By embracing a culture that values accountability, your organization is poised to offer quality care and compassionate service.
  2. Share good news
    By proactively pitching stories of quality patient care year round, organizations have a better chance of leveraging positive media relationships with local reporters when adverse health events occur. Consider also creating your own content—blog posts, feature articles and direct mail are all fantastic options in demonstrating true stories of quality care.

Adverse health events don’t have to have an adverse effect on your organization if you seek to build trust and positive relationships. Through caring patient interactions and acknowledgement of mistakes, this trust and transparency can be accomplished.

Nalder, Eric. “Lawmaker: State’s Medical-error Reporting Needs Upgrade.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer. 28 Sept. 2010. Web. 25 Oct. 2010.

“Involving Patients in Safety.” Hospitals & Health Networks, Health Care Management Magazine. Web. 26 Oct. 2010.

Kellogg, By Sarah. “Cover Story: The Art and Power of the Apology.” The District of Columbia Bar. Web. 26 Oct. 2010.


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