Poor communication: Root of most patient safety ills

Change culture, improve patient satisfaction

A 54-year-old man presented to the emergency department (ED) with chest pain, and the emergency physician performed an initial evaluation, including an electrocardiogram and cardiac markers, but they didn’t reveal a diagnosis. As the doctor continued to work on his differential diagnosis, the patient was having problems maintaining his blood pressure, so the physician considered the possibility of a thoracic aortic dissection. As a result, he took the chart and, according to him, notated in the order section that he wanted a computed tomography (CT) scan of the chest with infusion, and gave it to the clerk.

The order was not put in. The clerk said she never saw the order and didn’t believe it was communicated to her. Two hours later, the patient was still in the ED and had not gone for a CT scan. The physician, upon realizing this, ran to the nurse and clerk to get the scan performed. The patient went down for a CT scan, and he died in the room. In court, the emergency physician pointed a finger at the clerk and vice versa. The jury believed the clerk.

The verdict was more than $2 million, according to Daniel J. Sullivan, MD, JD, FACEP, president of the Sullivan Group, a consulting company in Oak Brook, IL.

As this example illustrates, poor communication in the ED can have dire consequences. In fact, poor communication between health care professionals is the root cause of nearly seven of 10 sentinel events, according to the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations in Oakbrook Terrace, IL — and nowhere is communication more critical than in the ED. According to the Joint Commission, there were a total of nearly 500 sentinel events in 2003 and more than 400 in 2002.

"The ED is a high-stress, high-risk environment where there is not a lot of room for mistakes," says Marc Taub, MD, FACEP, chairman and medical director of the ED at South Coast Medical Center in Laguna Beach, CA, and director of team training for California Emergency Physicians, an emergency physician partnership that includes more than 600 emergency physician partners in California. Taub points to the pilot, co-pilot, crew model. "No one can possibly know everything that’s going on, so if there’s not good communication between staff and nurse and physician, there will be things [the physician] will not know about," he says. The physician’s decision-making ability and patient safety will be diminished, Taub adds.

Attitude is an important component of communication, adds Diana S. Contino, RN, MBA, CEN, CCRN, a consultant with MedAmerica, an Oakland, CA-based medical practice support company for emergency services, and owner of Emergency Management Systems, a Laguna Niguel, CA-based consulting firm that specializes in staffing issues. "A nurse will be reluctant to approach a physician who is unapproachable, and vice versa," Contino says. "It makes them less likely to solicit information from one another."

Whether you communicate openly should not be an option in the ED, says Taub. "You must open lines of communication and constantly work to improve," he advises. "Even when people have information they may not think is that important, it should be brought to the decision makers." For example, a registration clerk might hear a patient mentioning a suicidal plan. "That information should be brought immediately to the physician or nurse caring for the patient," Taub says. "Don’t assume they already know."

On the flip side, he says, decision makers should share what they’re thinking and planning and ask for input from others. "By communicating to others, it allows them be more proactive and helps you achieve your goals," he says.

Taub recommends that after seeing a patient, physicians share their impression and treatment plan directly with the patient’s nurse. For example, a physician could say, "I saw Mr. Jones in bed 8 and I don’t think he’s having cardiac chest pain, but given his age and risk factors, I’m going to order a cardiac work-up. Any other thoughts or concerns?"

In addition, he says, it must be recognized that although physicians and charge nurses are the designated leaders, at any time anyone may become a situational leader. "For example, if multiple critical patients are in the ED simultaneously, a nurse or technician may need to step up to the plate and assume temporary leadership for a patient while waiting for the physician," Taub notes.

Better communication is built upon what Contino calls key tenets:

  • Create systems that foster double-checks for verbal orders and clarification of written orders.
  • Track and trend errors.
  • Promote optimal communication through a multitude of channels.
  • Hold people responsible for their interpersonal actions.
  • To promote patient safety, remove blame and look for solutions.
  • Give staff the tools to improve.

Principles such as insisting on open communication’ sound fine in theory, but how do you translate that theory into reality? Taub’s hospital and five others affiliated with California Emergency Physicians implemented a program called MedTeams, a teamwork training course from Dynamics Research Corp. in Andover, MA. The course teaches teamwork principles, including communication, based on a model used in high-risk industries. The program is based on error reduction, teamwork, specific behaviors, and cultural change.

The course begins by recognizing human fallibility, Taub says. In this new paradigm, everyone is encouraged to feel confident and empowered to bring information forward. In this culture, "It is no longer good to have a hierarchy if patient safety is involved," he explains.

Taub points to two specific behaviors he says have been instrumental in improving performance:

1. Interdisciplinary rounds or briefings. Scheduled after each shift, these include physicians, nurses, registration, and anyone else who worked on the shift. "The physician leads a quick briefing on all available information on each patient, as well as logistics, such as are we on diversion, bed issues, and so on," Taub explains. "It’s like a preflight briefing." And, he notes, no pilot would ever take off without a preflight briefing.

2. Conflict management. "You want to get away from notes like Doctor so and so was aware . . .’" Taub explains. "If you have a concern, go to the physician and voice the concern. We give staff a specific script to voice concerns, and as in aviation, if the concern is not answered, we have a double-challenge rule; you can go back a second time."


For information on improving communication, contact:

Diana S. Contino, RN, MBA, CEN, CCRN, Owner, Emergency Management Systems, 51 Hancock St., Laguna Niguel, CA 92677. Phone: (510) 835-7405. E-mail: continod@medamerica.com

Daniel J. Sullivan, MD, JD, FACEP, The Sullivan Group, 2000 Spring Road, Suite 200, Oak Brook, IL 60523. Phone: (630) 990-9700. Web: www.thesullivangroup.com

Marc Taub, MD, FACEP, Chairman and Medical Director, ED, South Coast Medical Center, Laguna Beach, CA. Phone: (949) 489-3891. E-mail: scoasted@aol.com