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First, kill as few patients as possible

Posted Oct 21 2008 12:51am
That was the name of a humorous book by Oscar London, but there is a serious side to the concept:

For years, Don Berwick and his colleagues at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement have been proselytizing and working to improve care in the nations' hospitals. They conduct important research and offer training programs for all types of hospitals, medical staff, and administrators. Recently, they have offered a metric that is the grandaddy of all metrics, the
hospital standardized mortality ratio. This is a disease and procedure based, risk-adjusted single number that tells you how you are doing in term of deaths compared to the average and compared to other hospitals. According to IHI, "the HSMR, appropriately adjusted for multiple variables such as population characteristics and diagnoses, provides an essential starting point in improving care and reducing mortality. "

In shorthand, for us lay people, the metric gives a sense of your likelihood to die at a specific hospital compared to other hospitals. If your hospital has a value of 1.0, it is average. If you have below 1.0, it is better than average. If you have above 1.0, it is worse than average. [Note: See correction to this statement in my comment below.] As with all metrics, you can quibble with the components and argue with the calculations, but it is as powerful a tool as I have seen. It is rapidly becoming the touchstone for many hospitals as they review their safety and quality programs.

IHI offers this tool to help people do better. It is not meant for advertising purposes or punitive purposes. As they note: "Many hospital deaths could be prevented if all the factors that contribute to them were better understood. Each hospital death provides an opportunity for learning -- by understanding and addressing local conditions that contribute to mortality."

We recently asked a group of outside experts from places with the strongest national programs to review BIDMC's progress in patient safety and quality. We received a good grade, but we also received a number of thoughtful and helpful suggestions for improvement. We have high aspirations. Our goal is to set audacious targets for improvement in overuse, underuse, misuse, and waste in the care of patients -- to set plans and milestones for doing so -- and to manage towards those targets.

Academic medical centers have a special responsibility in this regard, to create within the safety and quality program an academically rigorous examination of what works and what does not in various health care settings. I have given you a few examples in the postings below, entitled "What Works". But no single hospital has a monopoly on ideas when it comes to this field, and the first step is for all of us to disclose publicly how we are doing.

This HSMR number is not published anywhere unmasked by name, but if you contact IHI they will give you your own data, which is what we did. To relieve your suspense, 0urs is 0.71, which just puts us in the top ten percent in the nation. (Frankly, if a Harvard-affiliated academic medical center were not better than average, everyone would have a reason to wonder why.)

I wonder if my academic medical center colleagues in Boston and around the country would similarly be willing to post their HSMR number publicly on their own and to authorize IHI to maintain a publicly available list on their website. With a national debate swirling about the cost of care and value of academic medical centers, what would be more powerful than a grand display of openness about our progress in trying to kill fewer people?
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