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Avoiding 5 Common Safety Mistakes
Best practices for your facility to become a safer environment for both your staff and your patients
Gina Pugliese
Publish Date: June 9, 2008   |  Tags:   Patient Safety
The operation to remove a small bone from a high school basketball star's heel went smoothly. There was just one problem. Doctors at the University of Oklahoma Medical Center in Oklahoma City worked on the wrong foot. The surgeon apparently confused the "X" marking on the injured heel for a "don't cut" indication. Elsewhere, a patient had a serious adverse outcome from receiving 40 units of insulin instead of 4 units of insulin - a ten-fold overdose. These medical errors made national headlines and should never have happened. How can you avoid making these same mistakes in the outpatient surgery setting? Here are some tips.

1. Faulty sharps safety programs
Why this occurs: People are resistant to change and will often do what is familiar and easiest for them, even if it increases the risk to themselves. When evaluating safety devices, staff members and physicians often are more concerned about the safety of the patient than their own safety.

Best practice: To tackle this issue, involve your frontline staff as the leaders of change. OSHA not only requires it as part of the Bloodborne Pathogen Standard compliance, but frontline workers have the most expertise in choosing and evaluating devices that are acceptable to staff and clinically appropriate for the type of procedures being performed.Begin by compiling a list of all devices that could pose a risk of exposure to bloodborne pathogens: scalpels, lancets, syringes, suture needles, Huber needles or intravenous access catheters. Next, assess which sharps safety devices are already in place and which standard devices need to be replaced. OSHA requires replacement of standard sharps devices that are "contaminated" and thus pose a risk of exposure of bloodborne pathogens, regardless of whether there has been a documented injury with a contaminated device. This would not include devices that don't become contaminated during use (such as syringes used for sterile admixtures in the pharmacy). The final selection of devices depends on the preferences of the workers, prior experiences with safety devices and the type of clinical procedure being performed. Involving frontline workers in the evaluation will also help promote the acceptance of these devices.

2. Patient IDerrors
Why this occurs: Patient care is provided by many caregivers and across multiple settings. This can be problematic in the outpatient surgery setting because accurate and complete information or delays in information transfer about a patient's relevant medical history, recent hospitalizations, diagnostic and treatment reports and current medications are not consistently available when needed. Too often, confusion over patients will similar names has resulted in wrong patient surgeries. This can happen because prior to the surgical procedure, the surgical team does not conduct a final verification that this is the correct patient (as well as the correct procedure and surgical site).

Best practice: Active communication involves every member of the surgical team taking a role in the positive identification of the patient. Use at least two patient identifiers whenever taking blood samples or administering medications or blood products. In the ambulatory care setting, patients do not consistently have an arm band to accurately identify them.

Use two different methods to accurately identify the correct patient. Asking a patient to state his name and comparing it to a written record or paperwork is not enough. There needs to be a second method of identifying the patient, for example an assigned identification number, telephone number or other patient-specific identifier that can also be confirmed against the record. This can eliminate the problem of telling the difference between Smith and Smythe.

'X' Does Not Mark the Site in Wrong-Site Surgery Case in Oklahoma

3. Wrong-site, wrong-side or wrong-procedure surgeries
Why this occurs: These sentinel events can occur for many reasons. Some happen because of the frenetic pace of outpatient surgery. The writing on a chart can be illegible. An x-ray can be reversed if it's not marked L or R. The surgical site may not be marked. There can be disconnects in every step of the process. Staffs may take it for granted that the surgeon has verified everything and the surgeon can assume all needed precautions were taken by the staff before the patient is brought into the OR. Although certain specialties, especially orthopedics, are at higher risk of sentinel events, they can occur in any type of surgery.

Best practice: Following the Joint Commission's guidelines for preventing sentinel events can reduce the risk of catastrophe to zero.
  • Mark the surgical site with a standard protocol, such as the surgeon initialing the site.
  • Orally verify the surgery with the patient in each pre-op area. The OR chart should document the patient's verification.
  • Take a pre-op "timeout" in the OR in which the entire surgical team, including the surgeon and the anesthesia provider, verifies what they are about to do.

4. Medication errors
Why this occurs: Verbal or telephone medication orders have the potential for serious errors and adverse outcomes and should be avoided unless absolutely necessary. Additionally, the use of non-standardized abbreviations and dose designations and acronyms can cause serious medication errors. Some claim using non-standardized abbreviations saves time. However, because of illegible handwriting and abbreviations that may have multiple meanings, serious errors can result.

For example, the abbreviation q.d. or QD intended to mean "every day" is often mistaken as q.i.d., especially if the period after the "q" or the tail of the "q" is misunderstood as an "i." Another example is the use of "U" for "units" because the "U" can often look like a zero or even a "4". So 4U could be seen as "40" or 4u seen as 44" resulting in a ten-fold overdose. Units should never be abbreviated and always spelled out as "unit."

Best practice: Use verbal or telephone orders only when necessary and always verify their accuracy. When a verbal or telephone order is taken, the party receiving the verbal order should always write the complete order down, then read it back out loud to verify the accuracy of what was heard and receive confirmation from the individual that gave the order. This applies to all verbal or telephone orders, not just medication orders.

Secondly, when abbreviating on written orders all abbreviations, acronyms and symbols used throughout the organization should be standardized, including a list of abbreviations, acronyms and symbols not to use. The Institute for Safe Medication Practices has a list of dangerous abbreviations that they recommend should be explicitly prohibited. This list is available on www.ismp.org.

5. Lack of proper hand-washing
Why this occurs: Health care workers, on average, wash their hands less than 40 percent of the time when handwashing is recommended. Many factors contribute to this poor compliance, including irritation and drying from the agents used, inconvenience or lack of soap, sinks, or paper towels, insufficient time, lack of knowledge of the risk to patients and no role models.

Best practice: The new CDC Guidelines for Hand Hygiene in Healthcare provide much-needed guidance to setting your institutional policies regarding personnel handwashing. The guidelines state that prior to and between each patient encounter and after contact with body fluids, mucous membranes, broken skin, wound dressings or objects immediately around the patient, hands must be washed with either an antimicrobial soap or plain soap and water. If the hands are not visibly soiled, the CDC recommends the use of a waterless alcohol-based hand rub for routine decontamination of the hands. Alcohol-based hand rubs have been shown to reduce bacteria on the hands more effectively than soap and water and actually promote hand hygiene because they are convenient to use and cause less irritation and drying than many soaps. Soap and water are still recommended, however, if hands are visibly soiled.

For surgical hand antisepsis prior to performing surgical procedures, the CDC recommends using either an antimicrobial soap or an alcohol-based hand rub with persistent activity before donning sterile gloves.

Ensuring the availability of a product that is acceptable to the staff is one the most important factors to promote handwashing compliance. So, when evaluating hand-hygiene products for potential use in the outpatient surgical setting, consult your staff on issues like fragrance, the feel of products on their hands and the degree of skin irritation or skin tolerance of various agents before you make your final product selection.

Where to Turn For Safety Help

Evidence-based practices
When it comes to facility safety, the key phrase to remember is "evidence-based" practices. Virtually every organization committed to safety and standards of care - whether it be Premier Safety Institute, JCHAO, the National Quality Forum, AORN, the AAASC or FASA - maintains a similar list of safety objectives, even if they are quantified somewhat differently.

Don't get bogged down on which organization ranks which objective higher. These guideline are only to help you focus on identifying the most common safety mistakes that are likely to occur in your care setting and to use proven methodologies for reducing the risk.

The good news about implementing evidence-based practices to tackle safety issues is that there is no guesswork involved. These strategies have been proven effective. You will need a lot of energy, patience and vigilance throughout your organization to put these best practices in effect, but everyone - your staff and your patients alike stands to benefit from doing it.

Ms. Pugliese ([email protected]) is vice president of the Premier Safety Institute and associate faculty at the University of Illinois School of Public Health.