Wellmont Health System and two other hospital systems are joining forces to combat medical errors.
Officials of the systems, which represent about 1.5 percent of the annual 36 million hospital admissions nationwide, kicked off the initiative at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., Thursday morning. They said the initiative would improve patient safety and save money over the next 12 to 24 months.
The Safest Hospital Alliance - composed of Wellmont Health System, Adventist Health System and Novant Health - will tackle an issue that the Institute of Medicine rates as the eighth-leading cause of death in the United States, higher than motor vehicle crashes, breast cancer or AIDS.
"Why haven't we improved? We've talked this thing to death," said Dr. Richard Salluzzo, president and chief executive officer of Wellmont and founder of the alliance. He said the effort is a "continual journey to excellence."
In answering a Washington-based reporter's question, he said the effort did not reflect poorly on various groups that have tried to tackle the issue or on the medical community as a whole.
"When we read about somebody breaking their hip after surgery because a guardrail wasn't kept up, that's embarrassing," Salluzzo said, adding that the program will empower "front line" employees to "call out" problems as they occur, modeled after quality programs like that of automaker Toyota.
He also said the medical establishment has come to accept data on medical mistakes as valid only in the past four or five years, not when the first major study results emerged in 1999.
An estimated 98,000 hospital deaths occur annually from medical errors. These mistakes carry with them approximately $37.6 billion in additional charges, including $17 billion associated with preventable errors.
That works out to 15 to 30 hospital errors per 100 customers, compared to a goal of 3.4 errors per million.
"The only thing we're (the United States) first in is the cost and number of uninsured," Salluzzo said during the news conference, carried live via satellite to Kingsport.
With piecemeal approaches to patient safety, he said a total solution has remained elusive, in part because of a lack of standardized benchmarks for comparing the performance of health care professionals.
He said many well-intentioned programs are duplicative, have no accountability, and sometimes are at odds with each other.
By creating metrics and identifying best practices, the alliance will seek to define how a "safe" hospital should function and provide treatment to its patients.
"We're not doing this because we've been forced to by government-mandated changes in the health care industry. We're doing it because it's right," Salluzzo said in a news release.
As for cost, he said preliminary estimates suggest that implementing the safest hospital template could reduce health care costs by 20 percent to 30 percent.
Otherwise, projections are that U.S. health care costs now at $2.1 trillion will grow to 20 percent of the gross national product in 2014.
Salluzzo said the alliance hospitals expect to become a resource for other health care systems and will share program templates, initiate consulting services, and offer training programs. The alliance also has assembled a blue-ribbon advisory panel composed of safety and quality experts such as Dr. Kenneth Kizer, former undersecretary for health responsible for the Veterans Association and former CEO of the National Quality Forum, and former U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill.
The Safest Hospital Alliance also has the backing of the nation's leading hospital quality organization, the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations.
Development of the safest hospital benchmarks and templates will be driven by the chief medical officers of the alliance's three member health systems: Dr. Anthony Oliva, Wellmont; Dr. Ron Jimenez, Adventist; and Dr. Stephen Wallenhaupt, Novant.
Wellmont, which includes Holston Valley Medical Center and Bristol Regional Medical Center, with pending acquisitions and relationships will include more than 1,100 licensed beds and employ more than 5,000.
Adventist Health System, which supports Seventh-Day Adventist health care organizations in the Southern and Southwestern United States, is the largest not-for-profit Protestant health care provider in the nation.
It has more then 6,000 licensed beds and employs almost 43,000 people.
Novant Health has 2,382 licensed beds in North Carolina's Charlotte, Triad and Southeastern regions. Novant Health, which employs 17,000, is ranked seventh nationally among the Top 100 Integrated Healthcare Networks in 2007, according to an analysis conducted by the national Verispan health information company.