From Obamacare to nurses stockpiling medicine, health care has become a jury-rigged mess.
The nurses were hiding drugs above a ceiling tile in the hospital — not because they were secreting away narcotics, but because the hospital pharmacy was slow, and they didn’t want patients to have to wait. I first heard about it from Karen Feinstein, the president and chief executive of the Jewish Healthcare Foundation, who reported it at a board meeting several years ago. I wasn’t surprised: Hiding common medications is a workaround, an example of circumventing onerous rules to make sure patients get even basic care.
Workarounds are legion in the American health care system, to the extent that ECRI (formerly the Emergency Care Research Institute) listed them fourth among its list of top 10 patient safety concerns for health care organizations in 2018. Workarounds, the group writes, are an adaptive response — or perhaps one should say maladaptive response — to “a real or perceived barrier or system flaw.”
Staff use workarounds because they save valuable time. According to Anita Tucker, a business professor at Boston University, system breakdowns, or what she calls “operational failures,” and the workarounds they stimulate, can “consume up to 10 percent of a nurse’s day.” Most hospital nurses are stretched to their limits during their 12-hour shifts. No nurse has 90 minutes to lose to a slow pharmacy or an inefficient hospital bureaucracy.
I saw the common sense that can underlie workarounds when my hospital floor instituted bar code scanning for medication administration. Using a hand-held scanner to register bar codes on medications and patients’ hospital bracelets sounds smart. But then some medications routinely came without bar codes, or had the wrong bar codes, and we nurses weren’t given an easy way to report those errors. Patients’ wrist bands could be difficult to scan and the process disturbed them, especially if they were asleep. The lists of medications on the computer screen were also surprisingly hard to read, which slowed everything down.
But the biggest problem was that the scanning software did not work with our electronic medical records — so all drugs had to be checked off in both systems. This is a huge problem when dealing with patients like those receiving bone-marrow transplants, who might get 20 drugs every morning — some of which are delivered through IVs and come with nonstandard doses. What was already a lengthy process suddenly took twice as long.
Some nurses responded to the arrival of the bar code system with workarounds, including refusing to use the scanner, or taping copies of patient bar codes to their med carts. I tried to adhere to the rules, but if I was especially busy or couldn’t get a medication to scan, I would chuck the whole process.
However, because bar code scanning has been shown to reduce errors in medication administration, the hospital officials wanted it to be done consistently. They produced a public list of all the nurses on the floor. Each nurse was labeled green, yellow or red, depending on the percentage of medications he or she administered using bar codes. Family members, doctors — anyone could see how a nurse was graded.
Over time the list worked, but the sting of it also endured. We were being punished for taking time for patients, even if it meant bending the rules. No one among the managerial class seemed to understand that nurses care a lot about patient safety. The unheard concern was that a green light for bar code scanning meant a patient could fall into the red zone for something else.
Workarounds in health care always involve trade-offs like this, and often they are trade-offs of values. Increasingly, the entire health care system is built on workarounds — many of which we don’t always recognize as such.
Consider the use of medical scribes, who complete doctors’ electronic paperwork in real time during patient visits. The American College of Medical Scribe Specialists reported that 20,000 scribes were working in 2014, and expects that number to climb to 100,000 in 2020.
I have heard doctors say they need a scribe to keep up with electronic medical records, the mounting demand of which is driving a burnout epidemic among physicians. Scribes allow doctors to talk with and examine patients without having a computer come between them, but at base they are a workaround for the well-known design flaws of electronic medical records.
As a nurse, when I first learned about scribes, I was outraged. On the job, nurses hear repeatedly how health care companies can’t afford to have more nurses or aides to work with patients on hospital floors — and yet, money is available to pay people to manage medical records. Doctors who use scribes tend to see their productivity and work satisfaction increase, but the trade-off is still there: Scribes demonstrate the extent to which paperwork has become more important than patients in American health care.
The Affordable Care Act, which I support because it has made health care available to millions of previously uninsured Americans, is also an enormous workaround. The act expanded Medicaid, protected patients with pre-existing conditions and offered subsidies to make private insurance more affordable. Obamacare, though, was never intended to make sure that all Americans had affordable care; it works around our failure to provide health care to all our citizens. In its own way, the Affordable Care Act is as jury-rigged as using ceiling tiles to stash medications.
The United States spends more per person on health care than any other industrialized country, yet our health outcomes, including overall life expectancy, are worse. And interventions like bar code scanning are a drop in the bucket when it comes to preventable medical mistakes, which are now the third-leading cause of death in the country. Our health care nonsystem is literally killing us.
As the workarounds accumulate, they reveal how fully dysfunctional American health care is. Scribes are workarounds for electronic medical records, and bar code scanning is a workaround for our failure to put patient safety anywhere near the top of the health care priority list. It’s a values trade-off that the nurses on my floor instinctively understood.