How to Reduce Suffering: Commit to Zero Harm

Added on Jan 29, 2016

By Diana Mahoney, Editorial Director

In a recent
New York Times blog post focusing on preventable harm in hospitals, David Bornstein, author of How to Change the World, asks, “How can health systems be made safer when success means changing the attitudes and habits of health care professionals at a time when many are overwhelmed and deeply frustrated by all of the demands being made on them? What does it take to get them to embrace, with urgency, new ways of working?”

zero.harm2These questions imply a resistance on the part of caregivers to take up the safety charge. However, that seems to be a misguided presumption. At the 2015 Press Ganey National Client Conference, for example, hundreds of health care leaders eagerly signed a Zero Harm pledge, declaring their support for actions and initiatives targeting the elimination of preventable harm to improve the quality of care and reduce patient suffering.

Every signature was a promise to make the patient experience safer, and every promise was an acknowledgment that we are not there yet. 

Based on the overwhelming response to the call for Zero Harm pledges, the first and most obvious answer to Bornstein’s question—what does it takes to get health care professionals to embrace new ways of working in order to improve patient safety?—is to ask them. And then, engage them in the solution and support them with the tools and leadership they need to be successful.

To reach zero instances of preventable harm, a goal that requires breakthrough change, “Organizations must invest in creating and sustaining a culture that supports caregivers in the mission to provide safe, high-quality and empathetic care,” according to Dr. James Merlino, Press Ganey’s president and chief medical officer of strategic consulting. 

This imperative—one of six presented by Dr. Merlino and Dr. Gary Yates, managing partner of strategic consulting, in a ​white paper titled “Reducing Serious Safety Events: A Critical Dimension of the Patient Experience”—requires leadership commitment to safety as a core value and a goal of achieving zero patient harm as the starting points for an effective safety journey .

It also requires the adoption of high reliability principles to nurture a fully functional culture of safety throughout the organization, according to Dr. Yates. “There is a synergistic effect among reliability, safety culture and clinical quality,” he said. “As organizations adopt high reliability practices to prevent events of harm, their clinical outcome data get better.”

The palpable enthusiasm among the health care providers lining up to sign the Zero Harm wall at the 2015 National Client Conference indicates that they recognize safety as a health care priority. It also suggests that many are ready “to embrace, with urgency, new ways of working” to improve the safety of the care they deliver. What they need is the operational support to do so. 

“The time has come for the industry as a whole to embrace zero tolerance for patient harm in our mission to reduce patient suffering. Organizations must commit to transformation and embrace new ideas to ensure the delivery of safe, high-quality care and compassionate care,” according to Dr. Merlino. This commitment, he said, “is not only integral to improving safety outcomes, it is also an essential consideration for improving the patient experience and overall value of care.”