Unpredictable things that derail what we intend to do are annoying, and they can be dangerous. Like icy patches hidden under the snow, they're often hidden. Hazards are on my mind today.
On a larger scale, I've been reflecting about hidden places where safety gets derailed ever since a link to an article in the UK hit my Tweet stream last week. The headline and the original tweet used precious characters to say this: "Nurses who overdosed two Heartlands Hospital cancer patients escape punishment by professional body." The re-tweeted version that came to me included these words: "Sometimes sorry is not enough."
Based on the published account of these errors, the tragic events that resulted in the deaths of two patients did not happen because the nurses and physician intended to harm them. Rather, the processes they used to provide care on a regular basis failed when they were subjected to a drug's hidden hazard: Safe dosing of the drug involved, amphotericin, depends upon whether the specific product on hand is in a conventional or liposomal formulation.
The Institute for Safe Medication Practices defines a series of routine checks and balances that should be in place in clinical settings where amphotericin is used. Differentiating--calling out in a way that is obvious and unmistakable to all clinicians who prescribe, dispense, and administer drugs with liposomal formulations--is one of the strategies necessary to prevent these errors. It's also worth noting that liposomal formulations of drugs are part of a group designated as "High Alert Medications" so-called because they are highly likely to cause grave harm when used in error.
The process the clinicians used the day two people in the UK died failed because it was insufficient to prevent or detect a potentially lethal error that was set in motion. The nurses told the professional board that they were "very sorry," words that seem to have fueled the grief of the families and caused some in the global community to judge them, too.
"I'm sorry," no matter how sincerely felt or expressed, does not restore the dead to the living. That is not the purpose of expressing remorse nor for accepting an apology. The survivors of a terrible tragedy caused by medical error must be supported in how they choose to proceed, dealing with the unwelcome life-altering changes such events hoist upon them. Survivors must be free to accept or not accept expressions of regret (although many find sincere apologies by individual clinicians and organizational leaders lessen their burdens).
But how we treat the people at the "sharp end" of a tragic system failure is ultimately a measure of safety culture. And it's a place where where good people (including many patient safety experts and healthcare professionals) slip on a hidden hazard. Saying that the nurses involved in this error "escape punishment" suggests they deserve punishment. And "sometimes sorry is not enough" leaves me scratching my head. What would be enough?
- An Ohio pharmacist is prosecuted, convicted, and jailed for criminal conduct following the death of a toddler who received a toxic chemotherapy infusion: Jail Time for a Medication Error – Lessons Learned from a Pharmacy Compounding Error. Is this enough?
- A midwife in the UK hangs herself, believing she is blamed for the death of an infant that followed a failed hand-off of key clinical data. The details appear in Midwife hanged herself thinking she was to blame for baby's death. Enough?
- A new resident physician commits suicide following a medical error. Expectations of perfection and what happens to people when systems are not strong enough to overcome human error are shared in Words fail, a moving tribute written by her colleague. Enough!
Postscript: You can access a recording of the IHI webcast mentioned above by clicking this [Link].