Tomorrow, March 10, it will have been seven years since my mom died, the victim of a preventable patient care mistake in a hospital.
I was in Chicago preparing to speak to two sessions at the Congress of the American College of Healthcare Executives. That she died was no surprise. A week before, we had moved her to a superb hospice facility where, quite honestly, she received better care in preparation for death than she did in the hospital where she went to preserve life. Yet, when the call came early that morning as I was dressing for my presentations, it was a singularly stunning moment. By mid-morning word of my mom’s death had gotten around. People I knew, and many more who I did not, were sharing their sympathies for my family’s loss. I will always remember an executive search colleague who took me aside and was amazing in sharing his own story of loss. His support and kind words meant so much; they made the day a little easier to process.
I write this not only to honor my mother’s memory and life but also to make a point.
Preventable patient care deaths in hospitals happen every day. My mother’s was not an isolated event. Sadly, it is part of an epidemic, our industry’s dirty little secret. In the fall of 2013, the Journal of Patient Safety estimated that as many as 440,000 patients die each year, the result of a mistake in a hospital that could have been prevented. That makes this the third leading cause of death in the US.
To put it another way, this number is the equivalent of two, 747 jumbo passenger jets, crashing every day of every of week of every year and all souls on board are lost.
When I used these facts for the first time in a speech to healthcare executives in Atlanta there was almost no reaction. Their response, or lack thereof, is a reflection of another epidemic in healthcare: numbness. We have a big quality problem that is all too often fatal, but many healthcare workers have become numb to the numbers. We spend millions of dollars annually in this country trying to improve healthcare quality and safety and yet we still seem to be fritzing around on the margins of sustainable change. Some of our metrics are beginning to move but the number of preventable hospital patient care mistakes leading to death is still a huge problem. Dictator Joseph Stalin, a man responsible for an estimated 20 million deaths in Soviet Russia said, the death of one person is a tragedy; the death of 20 million is but a mere statistic.
The painful truth for me, and others like me who have experienced this loss, is that nothing much will change until each day, every day, in hospitals large and small, we make this problem very personal. We should begin each day with a commitment to one another that we will not be numb to the complexity and risks inherent in patient care. That we will treat each patient as if they were someone we love so fiercely that the thought of hurting them is unbearable.
For me, my mother’s death due to hospital error was not a mere statistic, it was personal.
It is time for healthcare leaders to make it personal as well.