Project Shows Substantial Decrease in Colorectal Surgery Infections

There was a time in medical science when doctors did not wash their hands prior to operating on their patients (some might say, that to a greater extent than seems possible, this is still the case among medical professionals and point to a number of recent studies as uncomfortable proof). This failure of doctors to wash hands in the medical forum led to the otherwise avoidable death of many of their patients. Up until the mid 1800s, medical science had simply not made the connection between bacteria, transference, infection and death.

Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian physician who was Director of the maternity clinic at the Vienna General Hospital in Austria, made the connection after what is said to have been an extensive statistical analysis in the 1840s, and demonstrated that hand-washing could drastically reduce the number of women dying during childbirth. He introduced a rigorous hand scrubbing protocol and enough women stopped dying to earn him the honorific, “savior of our mothers.”

But as an article from the UK’s Science Museum, Exploring the History of Medicine, points out

Until the late 1800s surgeons did not scrub up before surgery or even wash their hands between patients, causing infections to be transferred from one patient to another. Doctors and medical students routinely moved from dissecting corpses to examining new mothers without first washing their hands, causing death by puerperal or ‘childbed’ fever as a consequence. As dissection became more important to medical practice in the 1800s, this only increased.

Semmelweis showing again that the common sense of one era is the uncommon brilliance of one bygone.

Which brings us to this latest study/project showing new solutions which decrease the risk of colorectal surgical site infection. According to the Associated Press in an article about the project,

“Almost 2 million health care-related infections occur each year nationwide; more than 90,000 of these are fatal.”


“Infections linked with colorectal surgery are particularly common because intestinal tract bacteria are so abundant.”


According to the press release regarding the Project,

A project to reduce colorectal surgical site infections (SSIs) saved more than $3.7 million in costs for 135 avoided SSIs. The two-and-a-half year project included seven hospitals and was directed by the Joint Commission Center for Transforming Healthcare in collaboration with the American College of Surgeons.

The participating hospitals were able to reduce superficial incisional SSIs, which affect skin and underlying tissue, by 45 percent and all types of colorectal SSIs by 32 percent. The average length of stay for hospital patients with any type of colorectal SSI decreased from an average of 15 days to 13 days. In comparison, patients with no SSIs had an average length of stay of eight days.

The press release further notes that

Colorectal surgery was identified as the focus of the project because SSIs are disproportionately higher among patients following colorectal surgeries. Colorectal surgery is a common procedure across different types of hospitals, can have significant complications, presents significant opportunities for improvement, and has high variability in performance across hospitals. The project addressed preadmission, preoperative, intraoperative, postoperative and post discharge follow-up processes for all surgical patients undergoing emergency and elective colorectal surgery, with the exception of trauma and transplant patients and patients under the age of 18. Project participants studied the potential factors that contribute to all three types of colorectal SSIs – superficial incisional, deep incisional and organ space SSIs, which affect organs and the space surrounding them.


The AP article:

Solutions included having patients shower with special germ-fighting soap before surgery, and having surgery teams change gowns, gloves and instruments during operations to prevent spreading germs picked up during the procedures.

Some hospitals used special wound-protecting devices on surgery openings to keep intestine germs from reaching the skin.

The average rate of infections linked with colorectal operations at the seven hospitals dropped from about 16% of patients during a 10-month phase when hospitals started adopting changes to almost 11% once all the changes had been made.

The AP article further notes the timely nature of the Project’s benefits:

Besides wanting to keep patients healthy, hospitals have a monetary incentive to prevent these infections. Medicare cuts payments to hospitals that have lots of certain health care-related infections, and those cuts are expected to increase under the new health care law.


Big Brother Will Make You Wash Your Hands (Which may Be a Good Thing)

statue_of_giant_hands_in_hokkaidoI’ve written before here about hand-washing (or should I say, not-hand-washing) among hospital staff within the context of the wider issues of infection, avoidable patient harm, death and malpractice.

I noted prior that the New York Times had observed that a study of eight New York hospitals and hand washing showed “low compliance rates, which ranged from about 30 percent to 70 percent at individual hospitals….”  And that

Findings of shockingly poor hand-washing compliance are not new in hospitals. Other studies have produced comparable figures, and the stories of fatal consequences have become tragically routine.

The disease control agency estimates there are 1.7 million infection cases a year in hospitals and that 99,000 patients die after contracting them (although infection may not be the sole cause). It projects the cost of treating those patients at $20 billion a year.

In response, I suppose, we have this. A study by Armellino D., et al., entitled “Using high-technology to enforce low-technology safety measures: the use of third-party remote video auditing and real-time feedback in healthcare.”

I’ll save you the commentary and just go straight to the Abstract listed over at Medscape with a hat-tip to Natural News and Dr. William R. Jarvis (further details of study, plus video). Truth is, I really don’t know how to feel about this.

Armellino D, Hussain E, Schilling ME, Senicola W, Eichorn A, Dlugacz Y, Farber BF.


Department of Epidemiology, North Shore University Hospital, Manhasset, NY, USA.



Hand hygiene is a key measure in preventing infections. We evaluated healthcare worker (HCW) hand hygiene with the use of remote video auditing with and without feedback.


The study was conducted in an 17-bed intensive care unit from June 2008 through June 2010. We placed cameras with views of every sink and hand sanitizer dispenser to record hand hygiene of HCWs. Sensors in doorways identified when an individual(s) entered/exited. When video auditors observed a HCW performing hand hygiene upon entering/exiting, they assigned a pass; if not, a fail was assigned. Hand hygiene was measured during a 16-week period of remote video auditing without feedback and a 91-week period with feedback of data. Performance feedback was continuously displayed on electronic boards mounted within the hallways, and summary reports were delivered to supervisors by electronic mail.


During the 16-week prefeedback period, hand hygiene rates were less than 10% (3933/60 542) and in the 16-week postfeedback period it was 81.6% (59 627/73 080). The increase was maintained through 75 weeks at 87.9% (262 826/298 860).


The data suggest that remote video auditing combined with feedback produced a significant and sustained improvement in hand hygiene.


Models of Patient Safety

pasquale_frank_lg1If one jumbo jet crashed in the US each day for a week, we’d expect the FAA to shut down the industry until the problem was figured out. But in our health care system, roughly 250 people die each day due to preventable error. A vice president at a health care quality company says that “If we could focus our efforts on just four key areas — failure to rescue, bed sores, postoperative sepsis, and postoperative pulmonary embolism — and reduce these incidents by just 20 percent, we could save 39,000 people from dying every year.” The aviation analogy has caught on in the system, as patient safety advocate Lucian Leape noted in his classic 1994 JAMA article, Error in Medicine. Leape notes that airlines have become far safer by adopting redundant system designs, standardized procedures, checklists, rigid and frequently reinforced certification and testing of pilots, and extensive reporting systems. Advocates like Leape and Peter Provonost have been advocating for adoption of similar methods in health care for some time, and have scored some remarkable successes.

But the aviation model has its critics. The very thoughtful finance blogger Ashwin Parameswaran argues that, “by protecting system performance against single faults, redundancies allow the latent buildup of multiple faults.” While human expertise depends on an intuitive grasp, or mapping, of a situation, perhaps built up over decades of experience, technologized control systems privilege algorithms that are supposed to aggregate the best that has been thought and calculated. The technology is supposed to be the distilled essence of the insights of thousands, fixed in software. But the persons operating in the midst of it are denied the feedback that is a cornerstone of intuitive learning. Parameswaram offers several passages from James Reason’s book Human Error to document the resulting tension between our ability to accurately model systems and an intuitive understanding of them. Reason states:

[C]omplex, tightly-coupled and highly defended systems have become increasingly opaque to the people who manage, maintain and operate them. This opacity has two aspects: not knowing what is happening and not understanding what the system can do. As we have seen, automation has wrought a fundamental change in the roles people play within certain high-risk technologies. Instead of having ‘hands on’ contact with the process, people have been promoted “to higher-level supervisory tasks and to long-term maintenance and planning tasks.” In all cases, these are far removed from the immediate processing. What direct information they have is filtered through the computer-based interface. And, as many accidents have demonstrated, they often cannot find what they need to know while, at the same time, being deluged with information they do not want nor know how to interpret.

A stark choice emerges. We can either double down on redundant, tech-driven systems, or we can try to restore smaller scale scenarios where human judgment actually stands a chance of comprehending the situation. We will need to begin to recognize this regulatory apparatus as a “process of integrating human intelligence with artificial intelligence.” (For more on that front, the recent “We, Robot” conference at U. Miami is also of great interest.)

Another recent story emphasized the importance of filters in an era of information overload, and the need to develop better ways of processing complex information. Kerry Grens’s article “Data Diving” emphasizes that “what lies untapped beneath the surface of published clinical trial analyses could rock the world of independent review.”

[F]or the most part, [analysts] rely simply on publications in peer-reviewed journals. Such reviews are valuable to clinicians and health agencies for recommending treatment. But as several recent studies illustrate, they can be grossly limited and misleading. . . . [There is] an entire world of data that never sees the light of publication. “I have an evidence crisis,” [says Tom Jefferson of the Cochrane Collaboration]. “I’m not sure what to make of what I see in journals.” He offers an example: one publication of a Tamiflu trial was seven pages long. The corresponding clinical study report was 8,545 pages. . . .

Clinical study reports . . . are the most comprehensive descriptions of trials’ methodology and results . . . . They include details that might not make it into a published paper, such as the composition of the placebo used, the original protocol and any deviations from it, and descriptions of all the measures that were collected.  But even clinical study reports include some level of synthesis. At the finest level of resolution are the raw, unabridged, patient-level data. Getting access to either set of results, outside of being trial sponsors or drug regulators, is a rarity. Robert Gibbons, the director of the Center for Health Statistics at the University of Chicago, had never seen a reanalysis of raw data by an independent team until a few years ago, when he himself was staring at the full results from Eli Lilly’s clinical trials of the blockbuster antidepressant Prozac.

There will be a growing imperative to open up all of the data as concerns about the reliability of publications continue to grow.


To Err is, Apparently, More Common Than Reported

February 14, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Medical Malpractice 

nikkonoevil4902A recent article in the WSJ Health Blog, considering a survey of 1,891 doctors  published in Health Affairs, is worth considering for a moment or two.

The survey/study is said to have had a response rate of roughly 64% (3,500 physicians from seven specialties were queried) and was published by doctors Lisa I. Iezzoni, Sowmya R. Rao, Catherine M. DesRoches, Christine Vogeli and Eric G. Campbell.

The Journal reports that the study found

…a significant chunk of doctors — 34.1% and 35.4% respectively — said they only somewhat agreed or disagreed with the notions that they should disclose all significant medical errors to affected patients and that they must tell patients about relationships with drug and device companies.

What about actual practice? Well, 55.2% of respondents said they’d described a patient’s prognosis in a more positive way than was warranted at least once in the past year. More than 28% said they’d revealed confidential medical info to an unauthorized person (intentionally or not), and nearly 20% reported not fully disclosing an error to a patient out of fear of being sued. Finally, 11% admitted to outright telling an adult patient or child’s guardian “something that was not true.”

Soft peddling a diagnosis can be a form of mercy, with this I have no qualm. And I imagine there can be a number of reasons, under the same tent as mercy, for telling an untruth to a patient or a  parent. And maybe even a 28% HIPAA violation rate can be explained through some further form of altruistic behavior. But the fact that over the last year, of these 1,891 physicians, “20% reported not fully disclosing an error to a patient out of fear of being sued,” is reason for pause.

To admit to such is, in a sense, an admission against interest; which is to say that one would not be surprised if the actual number was higher than admitted. In fact, according to the study’s abstract, “Overall, approximately one-third of physicians did not completely agree with disclosing serious medical errors to patients.”

But take the 20% number on its face for a moment and consider the math:  of 1,891 physicians that’s 378 errors during the course of one year which, in their professional opinion, could have led to a malpractice suit– and so were not disclosed.  With less than 2,000 doctors, 378 errors that people are walking around with– or at least the lucky ones are walking around with– unknown and uncompensated.

Granted, with a J.D. after my name and given my own experiences with malpractice and the sound and fury I regularly hear regarding “malpractice reform,” I may look at this number differently than some. But it seems large to me– and I’m guessing it would seem a little large to its victims too, if only they knew.


Moving the Battle of the Experts to the Hot Tub?

June 23, 2011 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Health Law, Medical Malpractice 


Michael Ricciardelli’s recent post concerning a judge-directed negotiation pilot program in the Bronx to facilitate early resolution of medical malpractice cases reminded me of another idea to improve our expensive, expert-deadlocked, malpractice litigation system: hot tubbing.

I first heard this term (related to litigation, that is) earlier this Spring when a former colleague shared an article by Bryan Finlay QC, head of the litigation practice at WeirFoulds LLP in Canada, and law student, Kristi Collins, that discusses hot tubbing as an example of a new tool for judges to use in managing evidence in complex litigation.  According to this article, hot tubbing, also less colorfully referred to as concurrent evidence, refers to “a method of presenting expert evidence all at once by having the expert witnesses for both parties give testimony, answer questions, and fully discuss the expert evidence on one panel.” Finlay and Collins report that this practice originated in Australia in recent years and is gaining attention in Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Honorable Justice Peter McClellan, Chief Judge at Common Law, Supreme Court of New South Wales, Australia, describes the concurrent evidence process in a 2010 article in the Journal of Court Innovation:

Concurrent evidence is essentially a discussion chaired by the judge in which the various experts, the parties, the advocates and the judge engage in a cooperative endeavor to identify the issues and arrive where possible at a common resolution of them. Where resolution of issues is not possible, a structured discussion, with the judge as chairperson, allows the experts to give their opinions without the constraints of the adversarial process and in a forum which enables them to respond directly to each other. The judge is not confined to the opinion of one advisor but has the benefit of multiple advisors who are rigorously examined in public.

* * *


Conflict Resolution in Human Evolution

[Concurrent evidence] requires the experts retained by the parties to prepare a written report in the conventional fashion. The reports are exchanged and, as is now the case in many Australian courts, the experts are required to meet without the parties or their representatives to discuss those reports. . . .  The experts are required to prepare a bullet-point document incorporating a summary of the matters upon which they agree, but, more significantly, matters upon which they disagree. The experts are sworn together and, using the summary of matters upon which they disagree, the judge settles an agenda with counsel for a “directed” discussion, chaired by the judge, of the issues in disagreement. The process provides an opportunity for each expert to place his or her view on a particular issue or sub-issue before the court. The experts are encouraged to ask and answer questions of each other. The advocates also may ask questions during the course of the discussion to ensure that an expert’s opinion is fully articulated and tested against a contrary opinion. At the end of the discussion, the judge will ask a general question to ensure that all of the experts have had the opportunity to fully explain their positions.

(To see how hot tubbing works in trials in Australia, you can watch a video narrated by Justice McClellan here.)

Hand-coloured woodprint by Samuel Coccius, Basle Switzerland 1566. August 7th many black globes moved before the sun at great speed and seemed to be fighting.

Hand-coloured woodprint by Samuel Coccius, Basle Switzerland 1566. August 7th many black globes moved before the sun at great speed and seemed to be fighting.

Finlay and Collins report that “[e]xperts tend to like the hot-tubbing method.”  As they explain, “[t]he procedure allows them to more fully flesh-out and discuss their positions in, at least the beginning, a less adversarial way.  They like the opportunity to pose questions to each other.”  Justice McClellan agrees, reporting that “[t]he change in procedure has been met with overwhelming support from the experts and their professional organizations.”  This can lead to a more collegial and less partisan and adversarial exchange among professional colleagues.  This process may also reduce the likelihood that experts will take extreme positions, knowing that a colleague stands ready to challenge the basis for their statement.

Justice McClellan also relayed that “[a]lthough counsel may be hesitant about the process initially, [he has] heard little criticism once they have experienced it.”

Finders of fact, too, seem to like what hot tubbing offers.  Justice McClellan, who has presided over numerous hot tubs, is an unabashed proponent:

From the decision-maker’s perspective, the opportunity to observe the experts in conversation with each other about the matter, together with the ability to ask and answer each others’ questions, greatly enhances the capacity of the judge to decide which expert to accept. Rather than have a person’s expertise translated or colored by the skill of the advocate, and as we know the impact of the advocate can be significant, the experts can express their views in their own words. There also are benefits which aid in the decision-writing process. Concurrent evidence allows for a well-organized transcript because each expert answers the same question at the same point in the proceeding. Read more


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