Slowly the public is coming to realize that hospitals are not always safe places. When the Institute of Medicine published its landmark study “To Err Is Human” a decade ago, pointing out the ubiquitous problem of medical errors in the U.S., the press yawned. Since then, though, a grassroots patient safety movement has blossomed, and the media’s interest has grown along with it. More journalists are using data and old-fashioned shoe leather reporting to dig into what’s killing Americans in places that are supposed to make them well. A few years back, I had a conversation with Dr. Mark Chassin, who was then trying to make New York City’s Mt. Sinai Hospital a safer place. Chassin has now moved on to head the Joint Commission, a private group that accredits hospitals. Knowing that medical professionals and hospitals are loathe to police themselves while at the same time trying to weaken government regulation, I asked Chassin what will really cause a change.

Chassen replied that the pressure will have to come from the public in the same way that public pressure created environmental protection laws. Someone needs to call attention to patient safety the way Rachel Carson warned of environmental disaster in Silent Spring, Chassen told me. A book with the power of Silent Spring has yet to emerge, but rank and file journalists are beginning to tell the stories of what’s going on in their local hospitals. Hospitals, which would rather have reporters write about new wings named for rich dudes and the latest technology they just acquired, are not keen on having their mistakes exposed. Sometimes political pressure to keep these stories under wraps is intense, making it hard for the press to do its job. This is the first of a series of posts that will examine what the media are doing to report on patient safety in their communities. We invite readers to keep an eye out for patient safety stories and send them our way. Our goal is to spark a dialogue among stakeholders and the press, leading to safer care.

In a state where gamblers can easily access the odds on any video poker machine, Nevada patients have had no way of knowing their odds of being injured in a hospital, the Las Vegas Sun told its readers in part one of a splendid series on hospital safety. The series, by reporters Marshall Allen and Alex Richards, aims to change that.

Allen and Richards spent two years investigating hospital safety using a state database
of 425,000 inpatient visits. They found reports of 969 incidents of preventable hospital injuries in Las Vegas hospitals, some of which resulted in death and permanent disability. One woman’s windpipe was torn during the insertion of a breathing tube. Oxygen was pumped into her chest cavity instead of her lungs. She died. Another patient developed gaping, bone-deep bedsores on his buttocks and heels while recovering from heart surgery. Two years later, the paper reported, he can barely walk.

What made numbers like the 79 cases of advanced stage pressure sores, the 248 cases of post-operative falls, and the 475 cases of bloodstream infections caused by central-line catheters more dramatic was the fact that most were preventable. Allen and Richards pointed out that preventing pressure sores and central-line infections does not require rocket science, only a culture of safety and a willingness to follow good medical practices like hand washing, helping patients when they go to the bathroom, and turning them to prevent bed sores. Instead, they told readers that “a dangerous culture of mediocrity has become the status quo” in Las Vegas hospitals.

It was not surprising hospitals didn’t want to talk to the reporters. Only one of them did. Nor was it surprising that the reporters uncovered what they said were failures by the hospitals to report incidents, as state law requires them to do. The Sun’s reporters looked at the state’s regulatory efforts to pass a law intended to bring greater transparency to the problem of hospital mistakes. In 2002, Nevada passed a law requiring hospitals to report “sentinel events,” which the state defined as “unexpected incidents that cause serious physical injury or the risk thereof.” However, the numbers available to the public are reported only as state-wide aggregated data, not as hospital specific breakdowns—the result of a compromise between the industry and lawmakers.

Trudy Lieberman is a fellow at the Center for Advancing Health and a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR’s healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.