March 01, 2019 | | Comments 1
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Making a checklist, making it right: Reducing compliance errors

As you may have noticed, I am something of a fan of public radio (most of my listening in vehicles involves NPR and its analogues) and every once in a while, I hear something that I think would be useful to you folks out in the field. One show that I don’t hear too often (one of the things about terrestrial radio is that it’s all in the timing) is called “Hidden Brain”, the common subject thread being “A conversation about life’s unseen patterns.” I find the programs to be very thought-provoking, well-produced, and generally worth checking out.

This past weekend, they repeated a show from 2017 that described Dr. Atul Gawande’s (among others) use of checklists during surgical (and other) procedures to try to anticipate what unexpected things could occur based on the procedure, where they were operating, etc. One of the remarks that came up during the course of the program dealt with how extensive a checklist one might need, with the overarching thought being that a more limited checklist tends to work better because it’s more brain-friendly (I’m paraphrasing quite a bit here) than a checklist that goes on for pages and pages. I get a lot of questions/requests for tools/checklists for doing surveillance rounds, etc. (to be honest, it has been a very long time since I’ve actually “used” a physical checklist; my methodology, such as it is, tends to involve looking at the environment to see what “falls out”). Folks always seem a little disappointed when the checklist I cough up (so to speak) has about 15-20 items, particularly when I encourage them not to use all the items. When it comes to actual checklists that you’re going to use (particularly if you’re going to try and enlist the assistance of department-level folks) for survey prep, I think starting with five to seven items and working to hardwire those items into how folks “see” the environment is the best way to start. I recall a couple of years ago when first visiting a hospital—every day each manager was charged with completing a five-page environmental surveillance checklist—and I still was able to find imperfections in the environment (both items that they were actually checking on and a couple of other items that weren’t featured in the five-pager and later turned out to be somewhat important). At the point of my arrival, this particular organization was (more or less) under siege from various regulatory forces and were really in a state of shock (sometimes a little regulatory trouble is like exsanguination in shark-infested waters) and had latched on to a process that, at the end of the day, was not particularly effective and became almost like a sleepwalk to ensure compliance (hey, that could be a new show about zombie safety officers, “The Walking Safe”).

At any rate, I think one of the defining tasks/charges of the safety professional is to facilitate the participation of point-of-care/point-of-service folks by helping them learn how to “see” the stuff that jumps out at us when we do our rounds. When you look at the stuff that tends to get cited during surveys (at least when it comes to the physical environment), there’s not a lot of crazy, dangerous stuff; it is the myriad imperfections that come from introducing people into the environment. Buildings are never more perfect than the moment before occupancy—after that, the struggle is real! And checklists might be a good way to get folks on the same page: just remember to start small and focus on the things that are most likely to cause trouble and are most “invisible” to folks.

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Filed Under: CMSHospital safetyThe Joint Commission

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Steve MacArthur About the Author: Steve MacArthur is a safety consultant with The Greeley Company in Danvers, Mass. He brings more than 30 years of healthcare management and consulting experience to his work with hospitals, physician offices, and ambulatory care facilities across the country. He is the author of HCPro's Hospital Safety Director's Handbook and is contributing editor for Briefings on Hospital Safety. Contact Steve at stevemacsafetyspace@gmail.com.

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  1. Steve,

    Great points and practical advice. In my 20+ years in the environmental compliance and consulting world prior to moving into the Healthcare sector environmental engineers and auditors seemed to always be on the hunt for the ultimate Holy Grail of a environmental auditing checklist. This “tool” was never found.

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