Do You Have a “Culture of Safety” in your Ambulatory Setting?

Safety is no longer a problem just for executives. Much is said at conferences by health organizations and is in the literature about having a “culture of safety.”  This term embodies the application of safety and quality as a primary and overarching goal in the medical practice.  Safety becomes part of the daily work in which leaders and staff proactively solve problems, reduce risk and improve care.  Organizations turn to the safety tools from the “culture of safety” movement.  Using these and other tools, team members of all levels communicate about safety, ask questions and learn without the barriers of title, status or a fear of retribution. In this setting, leaders, physicians and staff are equally empowered to make changes during the course of their work.

One might be surprised to learn that there is a greater risk for harm in a routine office visit than some inpatient admissions. With the number of outpatient encounters significantly growing the risk becomes even more pronounced.  This blog provides guidance to leadership regarding strategies to reduce risk in the medical office by having clearly defined care guidelines and using the tools and tones of the culture of safety.

As you begin thinking about your environment, consider the overall approach to staff training. Review your on-boarding process and consider how you introduce safety principles in your culture.  Practices need to outline expectations early to avoid issues at a later date. Too many offices make the mistake of not having designated staff trainers which leads to inconsistency.  Ensuring physician and staff training is adequate, reduces the likelihood of performance improvement issues, stress from being understaffed, improves quality, as well as staff and provider satisfaction.

Next, consider the value of pre-visit work. Staff should learn a standardized pre-visit preparation process to identify gaps in care.  This will help staff to close all gaps during the office visit.  Ensure staff and providers know and understand the expected testing, the referral circle (internal vs. external) and the process for ordering required studies.  The employee probation period should provide support, coaching and instruction in the employee’s clinical setting.  Augment this training with online and classroom training.  Leaders can review paid claims and use business intelligence tools to analyze the cost and services provided, conduct audits and intervene when care is provided outside of the protocol.

Diagnostic errors can include missed care opportunities, delays in care, or more seriously, an incorrect diagnosis. Patient care should be consistent with evidence-based care guidelines.  A variety of approaches such as, decision support tools, order sets, electronic tasking, pop up messages, care coordination staff and evidence-based protocols, can reduce errors. Certified medical assistants can alert a provider to sign off on a pending order created by them, help to monitor the test that has been performed and the result delivered to the patient.   Encourage staff to use the culture of safety tools to ask clarifying questions to validate the follow-up plan when there is a deviation from the protocol.

Once diagnostic testing is ordered, it is important to provide clear information to the patient regarding the delivery of the result. The follow-up plan should be consistent as expressed by providers, staff and even the ancillary service.  Patients should either have a scheduled follow-up appointment to review the findings, be told they will receive a call or they should expect a letter within a number of pre-defined days.  It’s important to avoid saying to the patient, “if you don’t hear from us, then everything is okay.”

This type of discharge planning can result in miscommunication and delays in care.  Staff could use the culture of safety technique of “STAR” technique (Stop, Think, Act and Pause) to confirm they understand the follow-up plan for each patient and confirm it is consistent with office protocol.

Staff not updating the family history section in the patient record during the history taking can contribute to an important detail being missed. Staff learn differently and training materials may need to be in multiple languages or in various formats such as a written article, a checklist, or a routing slip. Encourage staff to utilize the culture of safety technique of validation and verification to ensure they understand what is required for each patient.

Communication errors may occur if an electronic system is not being used effectively to communicate or if active listening is not occurring, such as when a staff member is rushed or when a practice is chronically understaffed. Best practice includes future appointments being noted on the routing slip or a workflow which includes electronic orders being entered prior to the patient reaching check-out.  Consider if “pod” check-outs would help to ensure the discharge plan is reviewed/activated in the exam room, thus reducing hand-offs.

Errors or delays can inadvertently occur if a specific diagnosis is lacking or an incorrect diagnosis is entered. Using the culture of safety tool, such as practicing with a questioning attitude, staff can help to eliminate/reduce these errors.

With value-based care, the emphasis is on improving quality, safety and patient satisfaction. Practice leadership should continuously review their internal workflows and processes to shine a light on potential quality and safety issues from a variety of perspectives.  Consider holding a daily huddle with your team or identifying a safety coach in the practice to increase recognition, decrease harm to patients and employees while improving care.

Jill Berger-Fiffy , MHA, FACMPE
Senior Consultant

Leave a Reply