Observation Deck – Play it safe: Take some risks

Most of the time, when we hear the words “play it safe,” we cringe. To many of us, that’s code for “doing the same old thing.” But, when it comes to ensuring the safety of patients, healthcare workers and the environment, that couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, the political and social environment is such that the failure to actively pursue safety is what’s old – and pretty dangerous.

Credit the Institute of Medicine (IOM) with opening Pandora’s Box a few years ago in its report on hospital safety and medication errors. The report blew apart what so many people had taken for granted: that hospitals are safe places for sick people to recuperate, that doctors are infallible, that nurses can truly control the care of all those patients they serve every day, and that everyone can indeed read doctors’ handwriting (turns out they can’t).

The IOM report probably didn’t surprise many healthcare workers, who were already aware of the dangers of hospital work. The onset of AIDS in the 1980s taught them how easy it is to contract disease, and how easy it is to take precautions against it. Gloves were a no-brainer (though they opened a second Pandora’s Box – latex allergies). Manufacturers responded to the threat of infectious diseases by coming out with safety needles and IV access devices, sharps containers and other products. (Simply using hand soap turned out to be a good idea, too. Who would have thought healthcare workers would have needed to be reminded of that?)

Safety for the environment has been a sexy topic since at least the early-1970s. (The first Earth Day was in 1970.) But how many hospital administrators 10 or even five years ago made the connection between their operations and Mother Earth? Disposables were convenient, cheap and plentiful, and they eliminated the need for a lot of the reprocessing that was going on at the time. And few administrators cared about all the packaging materials they were receiving – and tossing out – every day. Waste haulage fees were kind of like gasoline: When gas was cheap, who cared if we drove gas-guzzlers? Similarly, when waste haulage was cheap, who cared how much stuff got carted off? The problem was that the volume of general waste – and much more expensive red-bag waste – didn’t remain static. It grew and grew. So did the waste haulage bills. And medical waste incinerators? They came to be about as popular in the community as maggots.

So, safety is a big issue. To ignore it is dangerous. And really, who would want to? After all, hospitals are in the business of making people well; safety is an extension of that mission.

Contracting professionals have a role to play in ensuring the safety of patients, workers and the environment. They can help their facilities assess automated information and barcode systems, which can help reduce the incidences of medical errors. They can make sure their product evaluation committees keep worker safety in the forefront of discussions about new products. And, through skillful negotiating, they can transfer some of the responsibility for product disposal onto the manufacturers of medical-surgical items, capital equipment and electronic equipment, such as computers and monitors.

Today, playing it safe is anything but doing the same old thing. It’s a call for hospitals, integrated delivery networks and group purchasing organizations to remember the mission and to ensure that patients, healthcare workers and the environment stay healthy.

About the Author

Mark Thill
Mark Thill is the Editor of The Journal of Healthcare Contracting and has been reporting on healthcare supply chain issues since 1985. He is a graduate of Dominican University in River Forest, Ill., and he received a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.
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