Respect: The key to patient safety and preventing medical errors

They say respect is a two-way street, and if a new Consumer Reports survey is any indication, that street is paved with better, safer medical care.

The survey findings are detailed in a report called "How Not to Get Sick(er) in the Hospital." The publication polled 1,200 people who were hospitalized in the last six months and found that those who rarely felt respected by healthcare workers were two and a half times more likely to fall victim to a medical error than those who reported they were treated well.

Consumer Reports defined respectful behavior on the part of medical staff as communicating effectively, showing compassion, honoring patients' wishes and acknowledging mistakes, and used "medical errors" as a catch-all term to include hospital-acquired infections, medication mistakes, misdiagnoses and other preventable adverse events. Of the patients polled, 29 percent reported experiencing a medical error, echoing the danger highlighted by a previous FierceHealthcare report that medical errors are now the third leading cause of death in the United States.

"I wasn't, unfortunately, surprised" by the report's findings, Dominick Frosch, Ph.D., a fellow in the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation's Patient Care Program, which provided a grant for the Consumer Reports survey, said in an exclusive interview with FierceHealthcare.

"At the same time, what this survey does is give us a more comprehensive picture of where we stand at the national level…So we could really get a better sense of how much work needs to be done."

An alarming one in four of those surveyed said staff didn't consistently treat them "like a person." Further, about one third felt their wishes weren't always honored and staff didn't always listen to them without interrupting; and 21 percent felt outright discriminated against, according to the report.

The report also highlighted how powerless some patients feel in handling their own medical care. One in five patients polled worried about bothering the medical staff or being a pest, and 13 percent worried about being labeled a difficult patient if they spoke up, Trisha Calvo, deputy health and food content editor for Consumer Reports, said during an exclusive interview, adding that communication between patient and provider is the key to improving care.

"Sometimes a gentle reminder can shift the doctor off the track they are on, in terms of communicating with you," she said.

But the burden for increasing patient engagement doesn't lie entirely with the consumer, according to Frosch, who pointed to a 2013 healthcare leadership guide from the American Hospital Association as a useful resource for improving the patient experience.

"Making respectful treatment of patients a priority will go a long way toward improving the hospital experience for patients," Calvo added. "I think that extends to the way the staff is treated as well. If you work in a hospital where you're not respected as an employee, that has a trickle-down effect."

Patient engagement has indeed been an ongoing trend in the industry, with providers seeking out new ideas to help patients help themselves and some research even indicating that more engaged patients experience less pain, FierceHealthcare has reported.

Some recent progress has been made in increasing patient safety, but the Consumer Reports survey indicates there's still a long way to go. And according to Frosch, "it's incumbent upon leadership" to right the ship.

"More of the burden of change perhaps lies with healthcare professionals and healthcare facilities," he said. "Because that's where patients and families aren't getting what they expect or don't even know they should be expecting better care."

To learn more:
- read the report
- check out the guide