As a medical director of a large acute hospital trust, how people die in our care occupies quite a lot of my waking thoughts (and quite a few of my sleeping ones too…). I thought I knew quite a lot about this subject – coming into the role from a background of critical care (where death is common). I have found though that my experience, whilst a useful primer in the topic, has demanded significant additional learning on my part – this post is my attempt to share some of that learning.
People Die in Hospital – That’s what they do
There is a curious symmetry in the social changes that have occurred at both the beginning and the end of life. The realisation over the last half century or so that many of what were believed to be inevitable tragedies at the beginning and end of life were in fact amenable to technological intervention and thus avoidable – and the change in the medical profession from overseer and commentator of natural tragedy to intervener and preventer of such – has driven these life events from a home based setting managed by community based services into a hospital setting managed by doctors, nurses and midwives.
This is largely a good thing – more mothers and babies survive the traumatic vagaries of child birth than ever before and people live longer healthier lives than ever before.
There is one rather stark asymmetry though – whilst death and tragedy in child birth is now a very rare event indeed – death at the end of life is still ultimately inevitable. As a society, even though we know we have to die eventually, we still haven’t worked out how we should die. This means that the majority of people end up dying in hospital (over 50% of people – thanks to Shaun Lintern and Craig Stenhouse for correcting this for me!) with doctors and nurses trying to stop them from doing so even when death is inevitable.
This is not a good thing because dying with someone trying to stop you with all the technological weapons of modern medicine (however well meaning) is not a good way to die.
The alternatives – provided by the heroes of the hospice movement – remains a cinderella service, patchily provided, reliant on charity and sparsley funded by public money.
Avoiding the Unexpected
So, people die in hospital – in our two hospitals that is about 1600 people a year (about 1 in every 75 admissions or put another way 4 or 5 admissions every day don’t make it home alive).
When these deaths are studied they can broadly be categorised into three groups according to whether they are expected or unexpected deaths and avoidable or unavoidable deaths.
Category 1 – Unavoidable expected deaths. This is overwhelmingly the largest category of deaths in hospital. People reaching the end of their natural lives, where their frail bodily systems have reached a point where they provide no defence against otherwise modest insults such as a fall, a urinary tract infection or the flu. Dying in hospital, as I alluded to above, has become the natural order of things in modern Britain (and many other developed health care systems in the world). Also included in this category are the deaths that we would recognise as ‘palliative care’ where even 21st century medicine genuinely has no response – terminal cancer or devastating neurological disease.
Category 2 – Unavoidable unexpected deaths. These are the genuine tragedies that punctuate life in a hospital. The relatively rare, but affecting cases that litter the landscape of a professional career. These are the maternal deaths from catastrophic amniotic fluid embolus, the brain haemorrhage from an unsuspected cerebral vascular anomaly, the tragically successful suicide or the disastrous major trauma from a road traffic accident (sadly I could go on). These deaths are often met with heroic efforts on the part of hospital staff to prevent them and are followed by dismay and soul searching when unsuccessful. When deconstructed at a later date there is often some learning (we can always do better) but just as often there is little to be learnt – bad things just happen.
Category 3 – Avoidable unexpected deaths. These are the ones where we got it wrong. Where lapses, incompetence, inexperience, neglect and system failure succeed in lining up in a single case to either actually cause death or prevent avoidable death. These are the cases that stay with you (believe me). This is the missed diagnosis because of a failure to follow up a test result, the failure to act on the deteriorating patient, the unacceptable delay in life saving intervention or the failure to take responsibility for a situation. They are thankfully rare (and overwhelmingly the smallest category of death) – not because the lapses and system failures are rare – they are not – but because (other than in exceptional circumstances) it takes several in a row to have such a devastating outcome, the good old Swiss cheese effect.
I suppose in theory there is a fourth category of avoidable expected death – that feels like a contradiction to me and I can’t conceive what it might be.
The ‘management’ task here is to attempt to assign every death to one of the three categories. That is not a trivial task – and it is not one for which you can take a statistical short cut, however compelling a notion that might be. Not least because in every category there will be deaths where on review there is identified a lapse of care – yet how many lapses does it take to move a death from either of the first two categories to the third?
Lies, Damn Lies and Mortality Statistics
Regular readers of my blog will know that I have been here before in my earlier post: Thinking about Mortality – Fast and Slow. I am not going to rehearse the arguments of the weaknesses of case mix adjusted, risk modified mortality statistics. Suffice to say that the reported ‘dramatic improvement’ in HSMR of the 11 Keogh Review hospitals will have had as much to do with scrutiny of their coding practices as the quality of care they provide.
Professor Nick Black through the PRISM (and soon to be published PRISM 2) study has shown little correlation between quality of care and HSMR (or SHMI or RAMI or any other way of measuring institutional mortality rates). I am trying not to be cynical about these – because they are in fact very useful tools, and cannot be ignored. However one has to be very careful in interpreting them because they tell you as much about what type of hospital you are and what type of patients you treat as they do about the quality of care you provide.
I can tell you without looking that:
Small provincial district general hospitals with proportionately large elderly care, stroke and fractured neck of femur services will have high mortality ratios (however well risk adjusted).
Large urban inner city general hospitals with relatively young transient populations will have low mortality ratios.
Tertiary Centres that carry out high risk care on relatively young patients (like liver transplants or major cancer surgery) will have high mortality ratios.
A Recipe for Managing Mortality
So where does this leave us? We can’t trust the stats and identifying the deaths where we got it wrong, sufficiently to have at least been a causative factor in the death, requires painstaking review of very large numbers of deaths and the judgement of Solomon.
Here are my tips:
1) Don’t ignore the stats – have a committee that looks at your death rates in all specialties and diagnostic groups – identifies the variances, the outliers and the alerts and investigates them even if CQC or Dr Foster don’t notice. You will learn a huge amount about how care is delivered in your hospital and how patients are moved about within it. You will also learn quite a lot about coding.
2) Have a system in place that reviews every death in the hospital. Some have chosen the Medical Examiner solution to this – paying a recently retired doctor to review the notes of every death and extract learning and identify those where more scrutiny is required. We have gone down a variant of the trigger tool methodology – every case is assessed against a set of criteria by a consultant not involved in the care of that patient, if enough triggers are present in one case it gets a table top review.
3) Have a method of sharing the learning – particularly with the consultants doing the screening (in our case that’s all of them), it is laborious work and it has to feel worthwhile. We are not so good at this yet – we have a news letter that goes out, we could and should do more.
4) Don’t trust Dr Foster – they are a commercial organisation that profits from scare stories. Don’t ignore them either.
5) You will find that 70% of patients that fall into category 3 are due to sepsis – invest in physiological track and trigger, sepsis screening tools and implement the sepsis 6 bundle and critical care outreach. Your avoidable mortality will fall.
6) You will also find that acute hospitals provide dreadful care to the majority of patients for whom death is unavoidable and expected (Category 1). The fortunate minority that find themselves under the care of palliative care doctors will get excellent care, the majority that don’t, won’t. Invest in end of life services – this has to be the greatest single priority for the NHS. We are about to publish our ‘Last Year of Life Audit’ – an investigation into the care provided in that critical period of a persons life. It will show that we admit to hospital on average three times in the last six months and start ‘supportive care’ on average 24 hours prior to death.
7) Finally – keep the politicians out, they don’t get it and never will and will do a great deal of harm meddling with stuff they don’t understand. You wouldn’t let them meddle with airport safety would you? why would you let them meddle with hospital mortality…?