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On Board with Quality

Cheryl Clark, for HealthLeaders Media, May 13, 2011
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The recognition that hospital trustees are ultimately responsible for quality and patient safety has pushed transformation on well-meaning boards. But it’s not one all directors have yet embraced.

To be sure, there are many stories of success. 

Jeffrey Tharp, MD, one of 15 trustees for WellStar Health System, a five-hospital, 1,311-licensed-bed organization in suburban Atlanta, recalls this recent example:

“One of our nonphysician executives on the medical affairs committee noticed while browsing the Internet that the brand of alcohol wipes we used to draw blood had been recalled. And right away, he made sure everyone got the e-mail.”

The hospital’s purchasing department had already removed the wipes from inventory. But that board member “was very well aware that he, too, had a responsibility to make sure they were removed.”

That sense of ownership goes much deeper, though. A new physician at WellStar must go through a face-to-face safety training program, and renew that training online every other year to be safety-certified, a decision by the board that now understands it’s responsible for the integrity of credentials it gives its medical staff, Tharp says.

Quarterly trustee meetings start with a slide showing first names, in red, of all patients who died, were harmed, or for whom there was a near miss, Tharp adds. “This represents people who may not be spending holidays with their loved ones this year, and it’s important that lay members of the board see that human connection. The goal is to have zero names on that slide.”

Eric Haartz, chairman of the quality committee of the board for 179-licensed-bed Emerson Hospital in Concord, MA, has another example. Just two years ago, “we would have been content with [receiving] the quality reporting data presented by the hospital.” But in 2009, directors took the initiative to set up six categories of hospital-acquired infections they said must drop by 50% by the next year. With board scrutiny and oversight, he proudly says, the hospital did even better.

It’s true, several hospital trustees and executives say, that historically, members joined these volunteer boards for social or beneficent reasons, and made sure the hospital’s finances and credit ratings were sound. There’s a lot more at stake today.

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