Investigations about safety issues result in few meaningful consequences for hospitals

Investigations into hospital safety issues rarely result in consequences that spark meaningful improvements, according to USA Today. That can leave patients in the dark and vulnerable to unnecessary infections.

An article in USA Today outlines a system stacked against public admissions of safety issues and potential risks of infection. A recent investigative report on sewage leaking down the walls and floor of an operating room in MedStar Washington Hospital Center represented the first public glimpse of a health department investigation into the matter.

RELATED: Sewage leaks, high infection rates plague MedStar Washington Hospital Center, newspaper report finds

In a statement, the president of MedStar Washington Hospital noted the hospital had corrected its plumbing issues, but Lisa McGiffert, director of the Safe Patient Project run by Consumer Reports, says the system as it stands does little to demonstrate public accountability. She suggests that hospitals must be forced to undertake internal and external audits following safety lapses.

Larry Muscarella, author of the Discussions in Infection Control blog, told the newspaper that penalties or fines issued in such cases rarely provide enough incentive for substantive change. In some cases, he says, hospitals face “little or no consequence” from citations by state agencies.

That leaves patients without information that could be crucial when it comes to deciding where they want to go to seek treatment. This compounds a related issue where, despite a general trend toward increased transparency intended to give patients information to make informed choices about their care, some hospitals have dragged their feet on releasing quality data.

Concentrating on short-term financial incentives that lead hospitals away from more substantive quality improvements actually could end up hurting the bottom line in the long run, according to trauma and emergency surgeon David Kashmer, M.D. He points out that hospitals that implement error-prevention programs see a median savings of $250,000.

“We have advanced quality tools available, but unfortunately we see some centers where, because of the culture or the situation, [they] don’t use them,” he says.