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Fear is not sustainable

A Welshman of some repute once noted that “fear is a man’s best friend” and while that may have been the case in a Darwinian sense, I don’t know that the safety community can rely as much on it as a means of sustainable improvement. I’ve worked in healthcare for a long time and I have definitely encountered organizational leaders that traded in the threat of reprisal, etc., if imperfections were encountered in the workplace (and trust me when I say that “back in the day” something as simple as a match behind a door—left by a prickly VP to see how long it stayed there—could result in all sorts of holy heck), it typically resulted in various recriminations, fingerpointing, etc., none of which ended up meaning much in the way of sustained improvement. What happened was (to quote another popular bard—one from this side of the pond), folks tended to “end up like a dog that’s been beat too much,” so when the wicked witch goes away, the fear goes too, and with it the driving force to stay one step ahead of the sheriff (mixing a ton of metaphors here—hopefully I haven’t tipped the obfuscation scales).

At any rate, this all ties back to the manner in which the accreditation surveys are being performed, which is based on a couple of “truisms”:


  1. There is no such thing as a perfect building/environment/process, etc.
  2. Buildings are never more perfect than the moment before you put people in them.
  3. You know that.
  4. The regulators know that.
  5. The regulators can no longer visit your facility and return a verdict of no findings, because there are always things to find.
  6. See #1.

Again, looking at the survey process, the clinical surveyors may look at, I don’t know, maybe a couple of dozen patients at the most, during a survey. But when it comes to the physical environment, there are hundreds of thousands of square feet (and if you want to talk cubic feet, the numbers get quite large, quite quickly) that are surveyed—and not just the Life Safety (LS) surveyor. Every member of the survey team is looking at the physical environment (with varying degrees of competency—that’s an editorial aside), so scrutiny of the physical environment has basically evolved (mutated?) since 2007 from a couple hours of poking around by an administrative surveyor to upwards of 30 hours (based on a three-day survey; the LS surveyor accounts for 16 hours, and then you will have the other team members doing tracers that accounts for at least another 16 hours or so) of looking around your building. So the question really becomes how long and how hard will they have to look to find something that doesn’t “smell” right to them. And I think we all know the answer to that…

It all comes back (at least in my mind’s eye) to how effectively we can manage the imperfections that we know are out there. People bump stuff, people break stuff, people do all kinds of things that result in “wear and tear” and while I do recognize that the infamous “non-intact surface” makes is more difficult to clean and/or maintain, is there a hospital anywhere that has absolutely pristine horizontal and vertical surfaces, etc.? I tend to think not, but the follow-up question is: to what extent do these imperfections contribute to a physical environment that does not safely support patient care? This is certainly a question for which we need to have some sense of where we stand—I’m guessing there’s nobody out there with a 0% rate for healthcare-acquired infections, so to what degree can we say that all these little dings and scrapes do not put patients at risk to the extent that we cannot manage that level of risk? My gut says that the environment (or at least the environmental conditions that I’m seeing cited during surveys) is not the culprit, but I don’t know. As you all know by now (if you’ve been keeping tabs on me for any length of time), I am a big proponent of the risk assessment process, but has it come to the point where we have to conduct a risk assessment for, say, a damaged head wall in a patient room? Yes, I know we want to try and fix these types of conditions, but there are certain things that you can’t do while a patient is in the room and I really don’t think that it enhances patient care to be moving patients hither and yon to get in and fix surfaces, etc. But if we don’t do that, we run the risk of getting socked during a survey.

The appropriate management of the physical environment is a critical component of the safe delivery of healthcare and the key dynamic in that effort is a robust process for reporting imperfections as soon as possible (the “if you see something, say something” mantra—maybe we could push on “if you do something, say something”) so resources can be allocated for corrective actions. And somehow, I don’t think fear is going to get us to that point. We have to establish a truly collaborative, non-knee-jerk punitive relationship with the folks at the point of care, point of service. We have to find out when and where there are imperfections to be perfected as soon as humanly possible, otherwise, the prevalence of EC/LS survey findings will continue in perpetuity (or something really close to that). And while there may be some employment security pour moi in that perpetual scrutiny, I would much rather have a survey process that focuses on how well we manage the environment and not so much on the slings and arrows of day-to-day wear and tear. What say you?

You know, I really find you quite attractive (human vs. technological magnetism)

Sometimes, particularly around the solstice, I struggle to come up with something (relatively) fresh upon which to pontificate—something that goes a little beyond the typical closing out of the safety year. Fortunately (at least for me; hopefully for you, the readers, as well), there have been enough funky things coming out of Joint Commission surveys this year to provide plenty of material. And today’s topic is the result of what appears to be an uptick in findings relating to MRI safety.

Now, the unfortunate aspect of all this is when the human and technological elements meet in combat, it would seem that it is the TJC surveyors that “win,” which is a very much less than desirable outcome.

At any rate, there’s certainly been a lot of information regarding safety in the MRI environment, first (and probably foremost) being the guidance provided by the American College of Radiologists (ACR). You can find lots of very good information on the topic on the ACR’s MR Safety page. And then, of course, our friends from Chicago felt this was important enough to warrant a Sentinel Event Alert (back in 2008…imagine that!).

Then, effective July 2015, we have the addition of two Elements of Performance (EC.02.01.01, EPs 14 and 16) dealing with some rather specific elements of MRI safety, particularly processes to ensure that folks who access the MRI restricted areas are educated/trained in MRI safety or screened by the folks controlling access to the restricted areas. I think we can reasonably point out that any time TJC adds EPs that indicate specific risks, etc., they are not convinced that hospitals well and truly have their collective acts together. And I guess, to a certain degree, they may have a point, but I think it may be more a question of managing behaviors than anything else (which I’m sure comes as a surprise to everyone in the studio audience).

Based on some TJC reports, the common theme that I’ve noted in recent survey seems to revolve around the management of surveyors when they trace patients into the MRI (and with the pervasive use of MRI in diagnostic medicine, I think I can safely say that if you have an MRI in your “house”, then there will be a patient tracer in to that environment), particularly as a function of screening the surveyors before they enter restricted areas. Now, part of me would like to craft a policy that requires a full screening (and yes, I am talking about a “full” full screening…hah!) of any and all regulatory surveyors—that might get them to shy away from being so obstreperous with these types of findings! That said, I think there is something to say about screening policies/protocols—make sure your MRI staff understand whatever screening process you’ve implemented, and (perhaps more importantly) prepare them for interactions with surveyors as a function of the screening process. Too many findings have come at the hands of surveyors that cited organizations for not having access that is “well controlled” or “adequately secured” based on MRI staff not putting the surveyors through the full screening process.

All that said, I would strongly encourage you to look at the process (and the policy, if you should happen to have a MRI screening/access control policy) for controlling access to the MRI restricted areas, including the mechanism for screening individuals (keeping in mind that “screening” can take different forms). EP 16, among other things, requires hospitals to restrict the access of everyone not trained in MRI safety or screened by staff trained in MRI safety from the scanner room (Zone IV, for those of you keeping score) and the area that immediately precedes the entrance to the MRI scanner room (typically Zone III). Now, you would think (and upon that thought, perhaps make an assumption) that The Joint Commission would provide some level of MRI safety training to their surveyors. That being the case, one could then have a process that does not require screening of the surveyors, based on their training in MRI safety. I think that MRI staff would need to specifically ask the surveyor if he or she had received MRI training before allowing the surveyor to proceed (and I guess the question for you folks in the audience would be whether you think the MRI staff would be comfortable asking the surveyor the question—it might be worth practicing). Even if the surveyor is in the company of folks from your organization that the MRI staff would “know” have been trained in this regard, is that enough to consider the risk as being appropriately managed—that sounds an awful lot like a risk assessment, if you ask me (yes, I know you didn’t, but you know I can’t resist invoking the mighty assessment).

So, it’s probably worth a concerted look during your end-of the-year surveillance activities (unless, of course, you’ve already done your second visit to the MRI this year, but may be worth a revisit); the sentinel event data published most recently by TJC ( provides no hard evidence (or at least hard, discernible evidence) that hospitals are not appropriately managing the risks associated with the MRI environment, but I think we could probably consider any sentinel event involving the magnet as something to be avoided (much like findings relating to MRI safety). If you have a solid process, then great. But if not, might be a good opportunity to harden that particular survey target.

If being accredited by you is wrong, I don’t want to be right…

I’ve recently encountered some survey results that gave me pause and I wanted to take a moment to share some thoughts on the perceived infallibility of regulatory surveys (and consultants), some of whom are pretty much unassailable (the most dangerous of situations for an organization—if you read this as the organization represented by the moniker Charlie Mike Sierra, you’d not be far off the mark), others somewhat less so, but you need to be very careful when taking on any of the three-letter accrediting agencies. While they may be in error in citing something, it is of critical importance that you are sufficiently conversant with what compliance looks like to make your case.

I’m going to start with a somewhat non-EC related finding, but it serves as a pretty good example of how a survey finding can go awry. A recent survey (the surveyor in question had been a perioperative clinical director prior to becoming a surveyor) cited an organization for inappropriate storage of a medication in a secure dispensing system (you know, those big honking boxes that create such a lovely heat load in your medication rooms). The citation was very clear, very nicely framed, etc., but it was based on information that was out of date relative to the medication cited (at issue was the stability/expiration of the product when it was stored at room temperature). It seems that in the past, this particular product was only viable for 14 days once it was removed from refrigeration, so that became the nature of the finding. However, the organization knew (and was able to present documentation from the manufacturer) that the stability of the product was good for up to 91 days after being removed from refrigeration. Now, we’ve spoken a fair amount lately of the importance of manufacturers’ Instructions For Use (IFU) when it comes to appropriately managing storage and using equipment and such, so this would be the point where you would invoke the clarification process to have the finding removed from your survey report. That said, the point I really wanted to focus on was that the surveyor presented what appeared to be an unassailable (and thus, infallible) finding, but (at least in this case) that infallibility was very clearly in the past. Who knew infallibility was transient?

Another area where surveyors can raise a ruckus is in the behavioral health environment, particularly when you are dealing with a surveyor who is not a specialist in behavioral health. The tipping point is that behavioral health professionals recognize that is pretty much impossible to provide a completely risk-free physical environment for behavioral health patients (and I’m talking just about the way the facility is built, etc.) so the key to appropriately managing those risks is working towards minimizing the risks to the extent possible and then identifying the mitigation strategies (and this typically is where staff oversight and monitoring comes in). But then you have surveyors who see ligature points everywhere they look in the behavioral health environment and they start “dinging” you for all those “risks.” Strictly speaking, the only way that you can defend yourself is by making sure that you have a comprehensive risk assessment of the behavioral health environment, based on your state guidelines or on a resource such as the Design Guidelines for the Built Behavioral Health Environment (now available from our friends at the Facilities Guidelines Institute), in your back pocket. But (and this is perhaps the most important piece of this) you also need to periodically revisit the assessment. I don’t know about your experiences, but mine have shown that the behavioral health patient population is not anything close to being static—the types of patients seen, the acuity and diagnoses—and, by extension, the risks will change over time. My consultative recommendation would be to include specific mention of the behavioral health environment when you do your annual evaluation of the safety management program at your organization (I’m a big fan of using the annual evaluation process to affirm/reaffirm the validity of your risk assessment processes). I know things can get a little crazy when it comes to this stuff, but there’s also be a spate of survey findings relating to risk assessments not completed for a specific concept (for example, where your organization chooses to have emergency medical response equipment and procedures beyond calling 911—talking about off-site clinics, etc.) or not updating the risk assessment in response to a regulatory survey finding.

(I have a hard time getting my head around this one: A “competing” regulator comes in, cites you for a condition, you engage in a corrective action plan with that regulator and then, about six months later, you get cited for not having updated the risk assessment to reflect the findings from the earlier survey. It just seems like a bit of “piling on” to me.)

At any rate, every time you do hazard surveillance rounds, you are (hopefully) collecting compliance data. Make sure you use that data to perform an analysis of “the state of the environment” and make the determination of whether risk is being managed appropriately/effectively. As I tell folks about once a week (and sometimes more), regulatory surveyors will always reserve the right to disagree with anything they (or anyone else) have told you, or, indeed, any decision that you have made relative to the management of risk (I guess this blooms out of the whole infallibility thing). And while you don’t necessarily want to get into a urination competition with a surveyor at the time of survey, as long as you “know” and can demonstrate that you are appropriately managing the risk and have a process for periodic evaluation of the risk management process, then you are in a position to use the post-survey clarification process. Surveyors can be incorrect (or, as a kinder, gentler descriptor) or mistaken about how a condition they encounter in your organization is in compliance with the standards, but you have to be quite clear within yourself how what you are doing is in compliance. It’s the only way to push back. Surveyors can be exquisitely convincing in the moment—and make you doubt what you’re doing—but you know what works best in your organization. You have intimate knowledge of the organization’s culture, how processes work (or not), etc. They’ve only just met you and while they have a job to do, you also have a job that you’ve been doing. That, in my mind, gives you a bit of a leg up on the outsiders…but that may just be me!

Reducing the length of stay: Not yours, but somebody who visits but once in a three-year cycle…

One of the most interesting parts of my job is helping folks through the actual Joint Commission survey process. Even as a somewhat distant observer, I can’t help but think that the average survey (in my experience) is about a day longer than it needs to be. Now, I recognize that some of that on-site time is dedicated to entering findings into the computer, so I get that. But there are certain parts of the process, like, oh I don’t know, the EC/EM interview session, that could be significantly reduced, if not dispensed with entirely. Seriously, once you’ve completed the survey of the actual environment, how much more information might you need to determine whether an organization has its act together?

At any rate, I suppose this rant is apropos of not very much, but the thought does occur to me from time to time. So I ask you: is there anybody out there who feels the length of the survey was just right or, heaven forbid, not long enough? As I’ve always maintained, TJC (or, for that matter any regulatory survey type—including consultants) tend to look their best when you see them in the rear view mirror as you drive off into the future. I know the process is intended to be helpful on some level, but somehow, the disruption never seems to result in a payoff worth the experience. But hey, that may just be me…

Any thoughts you’d like to share would be most appreciated.

Opinions are like…

Over time, I’ve developed certain thoughts relative to the management of the survey process, one of which relates to the ever-changing (maybe evolution, maybe mutation) regulatory survey process and I think it boils down to a couple of basic expectations (at least on my part):

  • You always run the risk of having a surveyor disagree with any (and every) decision you’ve ever made relative to the operational management of risk, particularly as a function of standards-based compliance
  • Your (or indeed any) Authority Having Jurisdiction always reserves the right to disagree with anything they, or anyone else, has ever told you was “okay” to put into place (and this includes plan review for new or renovated spaces)

Recent survey experiences are littered with the remains of practices and conditions that were never cited in the past, but in the latest go-round have become representative of a substandard approach to managing whatever risk might be in question. For example, just consider how the survey of the surgical environment has changed (and changed very rapidly, if you ask me) from what was typically a fairly non-impactful experience (there were any number of instances in which the Life Safety surveyor didn’t even dress out to go into the OR proper) to the area generating the top three most frequently cited standards during TJC surveys in 2014. That, my friends, is a whole lot of schwing in the survey process.

The bottom line message is, more or less, based on the adage “Future expectations are not necessarily indicative of past experiences.” You have to look at everything you are doing as a function of how your practices/conditions actually comply with the standards. Just as there are many ways to skin the proverbial catfish (skinning a catfish makes more sense to me in this modern era than skinning a feline), there are many ways to comply with what are typically rather open-ended compliance standards. As long as you can “trace” the practice or condition back to compliance with the standards/performance elements, then, even if you have a surveyor who disagrees with your approach to things, you can feel comfortable that you can “go to the mat” post-survey, using the clarification process to demonstrate how your organization achieves compliance relative to the finding. As a somewhat related aside, it is important to remember that you are only required to respond to what is actually written in the finding. Very often I run into folks who want to respond to more than what is actually in the report, usually because they remember what the surveyor “said” during the survey. Surveyors, like everyone, have opinions about how and what and where, etc., and they certainly have every right to hold those opinions (sometimes in higher regard than is warranted, but I digress). Opinions are rarely based on an absolute standards-based requirement. So, the tip-off comes in different forms: Maybe they say you “should” do something in a certain way or something similarly non-definitive. They typically stay away from things that you “must” or “have to” do. You “have to” comply with the standards and you “have to” comply with your organization’s policies and procedures, but beyond those points, you have to chart your course of compliance. You know best what will work to effectively ensure that you have an appropriately managed care environment (and, presumably, the performance data to back up that knowledge).