3 Keys to Improving Patient Safety During a Pandemic

Marketing Manager

Since the pandemic began, roles have been moved around within healthcare systems to fill urgent needs. Clinicians have been overworked and fatigued, and all of this disruption has affected patient safety outcomes. Preventable central-line associated bloodstream infections, for example, have risen 51% compared to pre-pandemic rates.

But healthcare systems can take steps to improve patient safety, even during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Progress toward positive change starts with accountability. “Everybody working in the healthcare system is responsible for healthcare safety,” says Michael Ramsay, MD, CEO of the Patient Safety Movement Foundation.

Here’s how you can implement better patient safety standards in your healthcare organization.

1. Foster a Culture of Patient Safety

The No. 1 factor in improving patient safety is embedding practices promoting safety into daily life and culture. Employees are often afraid to speak up when they see or do something wrong for fear of repercussions. Healthcare systems need to encourage employees to share concerns with peers and leadership.

“That culture has to change, and it is changing,” Ramsay says. “Everybody's got to feel empowered to be able to speak up and make a difference to make our hospital safe.” Some healthcare systems have begun implementing good catch awards to incentivize actions that can prevent injuries and infections from occurring.

But cultural change has to start at the top. Consider tying patient safety outcomes to leadership’s financial incentives to signal the priority level you place on patient safety.

2. Set Trends in Transparency

There isn’t enough centralized accountability for patient safety outcomes. Agencies such as the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) monitor data on patient safety indicators, as do some professional healthcare associations. But to move the needle on patient safety outcomes, there needs to be more accountability and transparency.

Healthcare systems can begin advocating for change by reporting their own data. It’s important to be transparent with patients and not try to hide concerns with safety. Only by being transparent can we begin to resolve underlying problems. “If you did everything that is the best practice and yet still somebody got hurt,” Ramsay says, “then we need to be looking at, ‘How can we make the process better?’”

Analyze data internally to determine where to focus to be able to make the most significant improvements. “Segmenting data has been a big opportunity,” says Helen Macfie, Chief Transformation Officer at MemorialCare Health System.

Black maternal mortality rates have been a pervasive patient safety problem across the U.S. Macfie and her team used segmented data as a starting point for improving labor and delivery outcomes for Black mothers in their care.

3. Improve People Policies and Processes

People policies can have a huge impact on patient safety. Understaffing and burnout have been significant concerns during the pandemic. “In March of 2020, we created a set of principles under which we would operate,” Macfie says. “The first one is keeping our staff and physicians safe so that we can take care of our patients.”

That framing principle has helped prioritize healthy staffing and other actions that support better patient safety.

Implement background screening software to catch red flags in potential employees, and dedicate additional resources to training contractors, travelers and per diem staff on your policies and procedures, Macfie says.

Improving patient safety outcomes won’t happen overnight. Reaching the goal requires commitment to monitoring and supporting progress. “We continue to have our quality committee and quality review processes in place,” Macfie says, “to take a look at our data and make sure that we’re sustaining all of those gains.”