Tag Archives: performance improvement

Best Of AAST 2021: Reducing Errors In Trauma Care

Finally, a performance improvement (PI) abstract at AAST!

As many of you know, there are two general types of issues that are encountered in the usual PI processes: provider (peer) vs system. Provider issues are errors of omission or commission by an individual clinician. Examples include a surgeon making a technical error during a procedure, or prescribing the wrong drug or dose for some condition.

One might think that provider issues are the most common type of problem encountered. But they would be wrong. The vast majority of clinicians go to work each day with the idea that they will do their job to the best of their abilities. So how could things go awry?

Because the majority of errors have some degree of system component! They are set up to fail by factors outside their perception and/or control. Let’s look at a surgeon who has several small bowel anastomoses fall apart. His surgery department head chides/educates him, reports him to hospital quality, and proctors his next ten bowel cases. Everything is good, right?

But then, two months later, the stapler company issues a recall because they found a higher than usual number of anastomotic failures with one of their products. So it wasn’t the surgeon after all, like everyone assumed. This is an extreme example, but you get the idea. System issues often look like peer issues, but it’s frequently difficult for many PI programs to recognize or accept this.

A multi-institutional group reviewed the results of a newly implemented Mortality Reporting System (MRS) to analyze a large number of PI opportunities for improvement (OFI). More than 300 trauma centers submitted data to the MRS when a death occurred where an OFI was identified. The reports included details of the incident and mitigation strategies that were applied.


Here are the factoids:

  • A total of 395 deaths were reviewed over a two year period
  • One third of deaths were unanticipated (!!), and a third of those were failure to rescue
  • Half of errors pertained to clinical management, clinical performance, and communication
  • Human failures occurred in about two thirds of cases
  • The most common remedy applied was education, which presumes a “provider issue”
  • System strategies like automation, standardization, and fail-safe approaches were seldom used, implying that system issues were seldom recognized
  • in 7%, the trauma centers could not identify a specific strategy to prevent future harm (!!!)

The authors concluded that most strategies to reduce errors focus on individual performance and do not recognize the value of system-level intervention.

Bottom line: Look at the pyramid chart above (interesting choice for a chart, but very effective). The arrow shows progression from provider focus to systems focus. The pyramid shows how the recognition of and intervention for system issues drops off very rapidly.

I am both shocked and fascinated by the last bullet point. A strategy couldn’t be developed to prevent the same thing from happening again. Now, there are a few rare instances where this could be correct. Your patient could have been struck by a bolt of lightning in her room, or a meteorite could have crashed through the wall. But I doubt it. This 7% illustrates the importance of investigating all the angles to try to determine how the system failed!

For once, I have no critique for an abstract. It is a straightforward descriptive study that reveals an issue that many in PI are not fully aware of. I’ll definitely be listening to this one, and I really look forward to the published paper!


Coming Soon! New Site For Trauma PI!

One of the most common requests I get is to provide more detailed content on Trauma Performance Improvement! To that end I am putting together a collection of print and video content on a new website that will address the things you really want to hear about but can’t find anywhere else.

Here’s a sample listing of some of the topics that will be covered:

  • Writing a good PI plan
  • Loop closure – basic to advanced
  • Involving your TMD
  • PRQ preparation
  • Creating workable practice guidelines
  • Crafting a Massive Transfusion Protocol that works for you
  • How to calculate your optimal number of trauma registrars
  • Preparing for your site survey
  • How to read your TQIP report
  • What is OPPE and how do I do it?
  • Integrating PI with your registry
  • How to interpret the Orange Book

If you want to be one of the first to get access to this content, please fill out the form by clicking here. Your name will be placed on my early bird e-mail list. I’ll provide regular updates on the opening date, and solicit your ideas on specific content you would like to see.

Subscribe to the mailing list now!

Nuances Of The “Unanticipated Mortality” Classification

All trauma centers verified by the American College of Surgeons (ACS) are required to classify trauma patient deaths into one of three categories: unanticipated mortality, mortality with opportunity for improvement, or mortality without opportunity for improvement. I’ve provided some details about each of those over the past several posts. But I do want to provide a little more detail for the much dreaded “unanticipated mortality.”

You may have noticed that unanticipated mortality does not seem to come in the same two flavors as the anticipated mortality: with and without opportunity for improvement. Why is this? Does this imply that all unanticipated mortalities have some opportunity or another? I actually used to think so.

But over time, I’ve changed my mind. It is true that the vast majority of unanticipated mortalities involve one, and many times, several opportunities that may improve the outcome for similar patients in the future. But I have personally seen at least two that did not.

How can this be, you say? Let me give you a far-fetched example. A healthy young male is involved in a car crash, sustaining fractures of a few ribs which are very painful. He is admitted for pain control, and is treated with your usual regimen of analgesics, mobilization, and pulmonary toilet. He admits to no significant medical or surgical history and is taking no medications. As he is sitting in his room waiting for his ride on the day of discharge, a small meteorite plunges through his window and strikes him in the head, killing him instantly.

So where’s the opportunity? Put meteorite shielding around your entire hospital? I think not. Don’t be ridiculous, you say, that’s not a realistic example. But what if, on the day of discharge, he stands up in his room and keels over in PEA arrest? An autopsy is performed, and a massive pulmonary embolism is identified. And let’s say that this patient somehow met your DVT prophylaxis criteria and he was receiving appropriate management per your practice guideline. And when you convey these findings to the family, they seem to recall a pattern of pulmonary embolism deaths and DVT complications in other family members. But nobody mentioned this to you during the history and physical exam. And you treated them exactly according to your protocol.

So what do you think now? Is there an opportunity? I still think not! But you must still pick apart every bit of the patient’s care, trying to identify anything that was not done according to plan or protocol that may have led to this (extremely) adverse outcome. But be aware that over your career as a trauma professional, you will likely run into one or more of these cases that are unanticipated but completely nonpreventable!

Trauma Mortality Nomenclature: Part 3

Time to (nearly) finish up this series on trauma mortality! We discussed the two types of anticipated mortality previously, now it’s time for the final (and worst) one.

Old nomenclature: preventable death
New nomenclature: unanticipated mortality

Note the subtle difference. The old name presumes you could have done something about it, which can lead to legal issues in some cases. The new one implies that death was unexpected, but does not presume that it could have been prevented. However, in most cases analysis shows that it could have.

Any unanticipated mortality should launch a full investigation from the trauma performance improvement program. In some cases, hospital quality may need to get involved. A root cause analysis may be indicated, depending on how many factors are involved. These cases must be discussed by the multidisciplinary trauma PI committee, at a minimum. It’s essential that everyone involved do their homework and become familiar with every aspect of care so that a meaningful analysis can occur at the meeting.

Trauma center reviewers will expect to see detailed documentation of the analysis in the PI committee minutes. And unless the death was a complete and unpreventable surprise there should be new protocols, policies and practice changes apparent. If these are not present, expect major reverification issues for your trauma center.

Is there an appropriate ratio of the three types of mortality? Obviously, there is a fair amount of variability. But after years of doing reviews, I can offer some guidelines. Here’s my 100:10:1 rule of thumb:

  • 100 cases – mortality without opportunity for improvement
  • 10 cases – mortality with opportunity for improvement
  • 0-1 case – Unanticipated mortality

If your hospital’s numbers are outliers in any group, your clinical care and performance improvement program will get extra scrutiny. If all your cases are mortalities without OFI, then your PI process is too lax. This is a complex business, and there a many ways to improve our care. If your mortality with OFI cases are too frequent, your threshold for improvement may be set too low (see my previous post). If you have more than 1 or 2 unanticipated mortalities, then there may be some serious care quality issues.

Bottom line: When reviewing trauma mortality, be realistic but brutally honest. We learn from the mistakes we make. But by adhering to the process, you should never make the same mistake twice.

In my next post, I’ll provide some additional thoughts on unanticipated mortality.

Trauma Mortality Nomenclature: Part 2

Yesterday I explained the most commonly assigned type of trauma mortality, mortality without opportunity for improvement (mortality without OFI). Today, I’ll cover the next highlest level.

Old nomenclature: potentially preventable death
New nomenclature: mortality with opportunity for improvement (mortality with OFI)

Again, these sound somewhat similar but they are quite different. Potentially preventable death used to be applied to patients who had obvious care issues that had some potential to change outcome. But it also contained a number of patients discussed yesterday who had support withdrawn due to age or degree of injury. There was some nagging doubt that, it something else had been done, maybe they would have recovered. So several of the “potentially preventable” deaths in the old category have been moved to the “without opportunity for improvement” category.

Unfortunately, a larger group of patients from the nonpreventable death category have moved into the “with opportunity for improvement” category. This is actually a good thing, though. The mortality with OFI category looks at whether there were any care issues, regardless of whether support was eventually withdrawn.

Whereas the vast majority of deaths at any center should fall into the mortality without OFI category, a modest number will be classified as with OFI, about 10%. The actual number depends on how broadly or narrowly an opportunity for improvement is defined. If you consider a few areas of missing documentation on the trauma flow sheet an opportunity for improvement, then you’ll have a lot of deaths classified this way. Concentrate on issues that might have actually had an impact on the outcome. The key is to develop a set of criteria that is realistic and that work for you. If the number of deaths with OFI seems high, go back and look at those criteria and adjust them. You can still work out a system for improving trauma flow documentation without it changing every death in a trauma activation to one with an opportunity for improvement.

Tomorrow, I’ll discuss that most dreaded category, the unanticipated mortality.