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Nation/World

August 29, 2012

Hospitals look to families, engineers for greater patient safety

WASHINGTON — Head of the hospital bed raised? Check. Patient’s teeth brushed? Check.

Those simple but often overlooked steps can help protect some of the most critically ill patients — those on ventilators — from developing deadly pneumonia. And if they knew about them, family members could ensure the steps weren’t forgotten.

Hospitals are rife with infections and opportunities for medical mistakes. Now, a nearly $9 million project at Johns Hopkins University aims to combine engineering with the power of patients and their families to prevent some of the most common threats.

The idea: Design patient safety to be more like a car’s dashboard, which automatically signals drivers when the oil needs changing or if a passenger forgot to buckle up, or like the countdown systems that make sure no step is missed when a satellite is launched.

Today, safe, quality care largely depends on individual health workers remembering hundreds of steps without good ways to tell if they forget one, said Hopkins’ patient safety expert Dr. Peter Pronovost. Getting it right takes what he calls “almost heroic efforts.”

And too often, the people best able to spot early warning signs — patients and their families — are treated as passive bystanders rather than encouraged to participate in their care, he said.

“Who knows better than the family?” asked Dr. George Bo-Linn of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation’s new Patient Care Program.

The foundation, created by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, announced yesterday that it is funding the Hopkins work as the first step in a planned 10-year, $500 million effort to improve patient safety and family engagement in hospitals around the country. Separately, the Institute of Medicine has signed on to help, partnering with the National Academy of Engineering, to bring together top experts on how to design safety systems.

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