Spotlight On: Barbara Boxer – Speaking up for Patient Safety

By Barbara Boxer

We have a crisis facing our country that many people do not think about until a tragedy hits close to home. That tragedy is medical errors that cause catastrophic injury and death.

Medical errors are the third leading cause of death behind heart disease and cancer – more than car accidents, AIDS, and diabetes combined. These deaths are even more heartbreaking because they are preventable. As a mother and grandmother, I cannot even comprehend the pain that family members endure, knowing that their loved one could still be alive if someone or something had caught the problem before it was too late.

Many of you are doing as much as you can to fix this problem.  However, we all need to step up and do our part. Just this year, the World Health Organization designated September 17th as World Patient Safety Day with the campaign slogan, “Speak up for Patient Safety!” Your voice is important.

Over the past several years, I have been proud to be part of the Patient Safety Movement Foundation’s efforts to eliminate preventable medical errors.  I have attended many World Patient Safety, Science & Technology Summits both as a speaker and as an audience member.  Each time, my spirits are lifted as I see how this movement is spreading across the globe and commitments are made to end preventable medical errors.

My commitment to this cause grew stronger because of a story.  When I served in the United States Senate, I met a constituent that lost her beautiful daughter because of a medical error. Lenore Alexander told me the story about her daughter Leah, a healthy 11-year-old, who underwent an elective surgery to repair a chest deformity. Many of you know Lenore and Leah’s story.  She died due to undetected respiratory arrest caused by the very drugs intended to ease her pain. Leah was not being monitored closely enough.

In the U.S. Senate, I worked with patients, clinicians, hospital administrators, advocates, medical technology pioneers, public health experts and federal officials to attack this issue head on. We wrote to 283 California acute care hospitals asking them what actions they were taking to reduce the nine most common medical errors. We also talked to innovators about medical technology that can prevent medical errors and engaged federal agencies on their oversight to prevent medical errors and compiled a public report with findings and recommendations to improve patient safety.

The report focused attention on the issue for my Senate colleagues, the media, and the public. A Senate hearing was convened to examine solutions to prevent medical errors.  Patient safety became front and center of discussions when lawmakers considered healthcare policy issues.

The drumbeat must continue to grow louder to capture the attention and focus of Congress, the Administration, and our state officials.  We need patients, doctors, nurses, hospital administrators, patient advocates, medical technology companies, public health experts and federal officials to demand that needless, preventable, tragic medical errors become a thing of the past. We need to stop these tragedies before they occur.

We need to tell our personal stories to our elected officials.  The stories may be difficult to share but they need to be heard by those who are making and changing healthcare laws.

It is time for additional Congressional hearings on patient safety to examine if any improvements have been made and, if not, what hurdles need to be overcome to fix this problem.

We need to ask questions, challenge the status quo, create innovative ways to improve patient safety and provide transparency when errors occur. We have to create a culture of safety. To do that, we need to demand that healthcare providers and hospitals commit to using Actionable Patient Safety Solutions to protect patients and their families.

We need to ensure that hospitals are taking steps to prevent medical errors and are reporting accurately and immediately the steps they are taking to prevent, reduce, and eliminate these errors.

The federal government needs to provide oversight of preventable errors at hospitals.

We need to encourage innovators to continue to work to eliminate medical errors through technology, and we need to protect healthcare workers who come forward and report medical errors.

This is not rocket science. These are easy things that clinicians can do. Wash your hands to help prevent infections.  Continuously monitor patients who are taking opioids. Make sure that the right medicine gets to the right patient.

Jewish folklore says that “Whoever saves a life – it is as if that person has saved the whole world.”

You have a chance to save a life. In fact, we all have a responsibility to eliminate preventable, needless deaths caused by medical errors.

– Barbara Boxer, former U.S. Senator (D-California)