One in three hospital leaders say patient safety efforts are falling short

Most executives say burnout and staff shortages are hurting patient safety, according to the Hospital Patient Safety Report by VigiLanz. Some say they are leading to patient deaths.

As patient safety continues to gain more attention, some healthcare leaders acknowledge their own hospitals and systems are falling short.

One in three hospital executives said their organizations aren’t doing enough to address patient safety problems related to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new report.

VigiLanz, a clinical surveillance company, issued its fourth annual Hospital Patient Safety Report. The report comes amidst growing concerns about patient safety from the federal government. Federal officials have said improvements in patient safety have been wiped out during the pandemic.

One hundred hospital and healthcare system leaders participated in the report. Sage Growth Partners surveyed the executives independently. The vast majority of respondents represented acute-care hospitals.

Healthcare executives who participated in the survey outlined a host of troubling concerns.

The vast majority of hospital executives (89%) said the pandemic exposed vulnerabilities to patient safety.

More than 4 out of 5 (86%) surveyed said burnout has contributed to declines in patient safety. One out of five (21%) executives surveyed said burnout has contributed to patient deaths.

Staff shortages have also contributed to safety declines, according to the report. Eighty percent of hospital officials said staff shortages have hurt patient safety, while 23% said shortages have led to patient deaths.

Roughly a quarter (26%) of the hospital executives said they were dissatisfied with their organizations’ safety performance in 2021.

The response of healthcare executives aligned with a report by Ecri, a nonprofit group focused on patient safety. Ecri ranked healthcare staffing shortages and the stress on clinicians as the two leading threats to the safety of patients.

Two out of five (42%) healthcare leaders said the rate of hospital-acquired infections has increased over the past 12 months. Nearly half (44%) said hospital-acquired infections are their top safety challenge. Federal officials recently pointed to the rise in hospital-based infections as a worrying indicator of declines in patient safety.

More than three-quarters (78%) of the executives said the pandemic has lead to new initiatives to improve the safety of patients. Nearly two-thirds of the executives (64%) said they have a higher budget for staff safety improvements. And 72% of the participants said their organizations have worked to improve the safety of hospital visitors.

Dr. Hayley Burgess, chief clinical officer of VigiLanz, noted the problems facing healthcare organizations but is encouraged by their response.

“Hospital leaders are facing several safety-related challenges, but the good news is they are embracing new initiatives—and allocating more resources—to meet them,” Burgess said in a statement accompanying the report.

The U.S. Department of Labor recently announced it was undertaking a three-month period of increased inspections at hospitals and nursing homes. Federal inspectors will be evaluating how providers are protecting COVID-19 patients and workers.

While acknowledging the tremendous challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic on hospitals, federal officials have said the healthcare industry needs a greater commitment to improve the safety of patients and workers.

In an analysis published in the New England Journal of Medicine, leaders with the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cited several worrisome signs, including a sharp rise in infections. They also suggested the federal government could be expanding its oversight to spur improvements in patient safety.

Some advocates have urged healthcare organizations to do a better job of addressing the mental health needs of their clinicians, and they have said it is an issue affecting the safety of both workers and patients.

President Joe Biden signed legislation last week that directs more money for programs to address burnout and mental health in healthcare. The Lorna Breen Act was inspired by a New York emergency physician who died by suicide after being overwhelmed caring for patients early in the COVID-19 pandemic.

The survey found 26% of healthcare executives use clinical surveillance technology to track infections and other safety indicators, but the survey found 50% of participants said they planned to adopt such technology in the next two years.