For this post, the Department of Quality and Safety asked one of our team members, Karthik Sivashanker, MD, MPH, CPPS, medical director for Quality, Safety, and Equity, to discuss Brigham Health’s focus on equity, how it can be misunderstood, and why it is a critical patient quality and safety issue.

The New Year is a common time for people to pause and consider what’s important to them and where they’d like to be in the future. At Brigham Health, we’re excited to renew our commitment to providing equitable high-quality care to all of our patients for 2020 and beyond. To understand why this is so important, we first need to understand what we mean by equity, and how that ties into the quality and safety of our patients’ care.

We can begin by asking what matters to you as our patient? For most of us, being treated with respect and dignity is high on that list. We might even say that we want to be treated “equally,” no matter our race, religion, language, gender, etc. But is equality really the goal or is it something else?

Here’s an example to help us think through this. Consider this picture of people waiting in line for the bathroom:

Have you seen long lines for the bathroom before? If so, is it usually for the men’s or the women’s bathroom? In general, most of us would say that women’s bathrooms tend to have the longer lines. Have you ever paused to wonder why that might be? Why would we design bathrooms that lead women to wait longer than men? The answer, of course, is that we didn’t. Or at least, we didn’t intentionally design bathrooms in this way. More likely than not, these bathrooms were designed with the assumption that what works for one group will also work for others, resulting in bathrooms that are designed similarly for both.

Are these bathroom designs working well for women? Clearly not. But what about for men?

Before answering, consider men who may be with women waiting in line. Don’t many of them end up waiting as well for their wife, sister, daughter, friend, etc. to finish? What about fathers with babies using bathroom that don’t have changing stations? Or fathers with young daughters who may have to bring their daughters into a bathroom full of men?

Clearly, many bathrooms don’t always work well for men either.

This is a simple example to illustrate a complex point. If we design bathrooms to be “equal,” they may not serve the needs of the diverse people using them. In fact, they may not serve the needs of anyone in the best possible way. We considered men and women, but we can ask the same questions for other groups like transgender people or the disabled. At the end of the day, equal doesn’t mean fair.

Instead, we should be aiming for equity. The goal with equity is to design a system that works well for everybody. This is easier said than done and gets even more complicated when you think about how these ideas apply to health care.

Consider the example of access to routine preventative cancer screenings, like mammograms for breast cancer. Many people don’t have the money, social support, or the other things that are needed to access such care. Although care is equally available to all groups, inequities exist that prevent certain groups from receiving the care they need.

Here at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, we feel strongly that every single patient should get the very best and safest care (i.e., equitable care). This does not mean treating every patient the same, because who we are matters. What works for one patient may not work for another. With this in mind, we are taking a new approach that considers equity at every step of the way, starting with patient safety and quality.

When a patient suffers an avoidable harm, we try to understand what happened. This means getting at the “root” of the problem using different tools. Instead of re-inventing the wheel when it comes to equity, the idea is to take the same “root cause” approach, and to add an equity lens. Sometimes, this is as simple as asking the question: “Was there an inequity that played a role in this patient not receiving safe and excellent care?”

An article (and Podcast) in the New England Journal of Medicine this month by Dr. Karthik Sivashanker highlights this approach and explains a new way of thinking about patient safety, quality, and equity that should improve the care for all our patients and families. You can learn more by reading the article here.



For this post, the Department of Quality and Safety asked Hojjat Salmasian, MD, MPH, PhD, Brigham Health medical director of Data Science and Analytics, to discuss an innovative project involving patient photographs that is helping keep our patients safer.

Innovations in patient safety do not have to be complicated. Sometimes, a solution to ensuring patients receive the right treatment is as simple as having their photograph taken and displayed in their electronic health record (EHR).

Nationally, medication errors are a significant patient safety risk and wrong-patient errors are an important root cause of medication errors. Wrong-patient order errors occur when a provider orders a medication, test or procedure for the incorrect patient. The consequences of wrong-patient orders can be significant, even resulting in death. At the Brigham, we have identified this as an important vulnerability and have begun to re-think how wrong-patient errors can be prevented.

Our hospital came up with a potential solution: If a patient’s headshot photo was included on the main screen of his or her EHR, would providers be less likely to confuse patients and make mistakes? This intervention is particularly appealing because it doesn’t interrupt the clinicians’ workflow, unlike electronic alerts or “pop-ups.”

The project team chose the Emergency Department (ED) as the first location to implement this new strategy for several reasons. The ED is one of the major points of entry for our patients, and therefore taking photos in the ED will ensure patients benefit from this safety plan throughout their hospital stay. Additionally, care teams in the ED frequently multitask, caring for multiple patients simultaneously– these factors contribute to the ED setting being a higher risk for placing an order for the wrong patient.

Beginning in 2017, when patients arrived at the ED, staff in Patient Access Services would introduce the initiative and explain the safety benefits of having a photo displayed in the EHR. If a patient agreed to participate, the registrar would take a photo using a handheld device and upload it into the EHR. When a provider opens the patient’s EHR, the patient’s photo would be visible within the EHR Header (Figure).

Data and photograph shown in this image are not of a real person.

Multiple leaders from our institution came together to make this project a successful reality. This includes Adam Landman, MD, MS, our chief information officer, who is also an emergency physician and Bonnie Blanchfield, ScD, assistant professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School and Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health. Landman and Blanchfield also secured funding from CRICO (our liability insurance provider) to subsequently study the impact of the patient photos on patient safety.

A recent analysis of data from the initiative shows that when patient photos were available in the EHR, providers were at least 35% less likely to place an order for the wrong patient. Although wrong patient orders occur only in about 1 of every 1000 orders, at a hospital like Brigham and Women’s Hospital where providers place millions of orders every year, this 35% reduction has profound implications for improving patient safety within our hospital. We owe this success primarily to two groups: our patients, who partnered with us in this initiative, and our ED Patient Access staff, led by Kelley Joyce and Kaila Centeio.

Due to the enormous success of the program, the Brigham is excited to expand this program into all inpatient areas. We believe this project is an example of a simple, “low-tech,” and inexpensive solution of how thinking outside of the box can help improve patient safety, while ensuring our providers are able to focus on what they do best: providing the highest quality care to our patients.



For this post, we asked one of our Department of Quality and Safety medical directors, Mallika Mendu, MD, MBA, to discuss a mortality-review tool being utilized to drive improvements in medical errors that lead to unnecessary deaths.

Patients depend on hospitals to get the care they need. But sometimes, health care institutions fall short for many different reasons. Research estimates that each year, medical errors cause between 210,000-400,000 deaths nationwide.1 Every one of those deaths represent an opportunity to ask questions, learn from mistakes and improve systems going forward. At Brigham Health, we want to ensure that we learn from every error that contributes to death at our hospital.

Safety science experts have emphasized that the most crucial step towards reducing deaths due to medical errors is rapid identification of these errors and potential errors, or what we refer to as “near-misses.” This identification can be extremely challenging, particularly when a patient’s treatment is complex, involving multiple physicians, medications and procedures.

When we began the process of identifying errors or potential errors at Brigham, we realized the caregivers involved in the patient’s care at the time of death were often the most capable of identifying any potential issues that may have contributed to the patient’s death.

For these reasons, over seven years ago, Brigham Health developed and implemented a hospital-wide electronic tool used to capture real-time information about patient deaths from frontline providers. Using this tool, the team members involved in a patient’s care at the time of death almost immediately receive an email with questions around the circumstances of the patient’s death. The goal is to get providers’ perspective in real time, to understand if there was a medical error that contributed to the death, or if we, in any way, could have done things better. The information provided is then investigated confidentially by safety leadership, and steps are taken to address errors or implement improvements suggested. Using these investigations, our goal is to educate ourselves, and to learn from mistakes moving forward.

Since the implementation of this tool, there have been many positive changes made because of the information provided through these reviews. Some examples include improving our process of transferring patients from other hospitals, improving communication between various teams at the Brigham and enhancing end-of-life conversations led by physician trainees.

Brigham Health believes that we can continue to learn from every death that occurs in the hospital by using this tool and continuing to increase our efforts to promote transparency and feedback from staff. Reflecting on how we can provide better care on an ongoing basis is a key part of our mission.

You can read more about our inpatient mortality review system work in BMJ Quality and Safety, published here.


1Makary MA, Daniel M. Medical Error-The Third Leading Cause of Death in the US. BMJ. 2016 May 3;353:i2139.



The Department of Quality and Safety is thrilled to welcome Andrew Resnick, MD, MBA, our new chief quality officer and senior vice president at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Andrew joins us from his prior role as chief medical officer of Froedtert Hospital, where he served as associate dean of Clinical Affairs Adult Practice and associate professor of General Surgery at the Medical College of Wisconsin. Additionally, he previously served as chief quality officer at Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. For this post, we asked Andrew to share how he became interested in quality and safety, why he feels the field is important and the vision he has for his new role.

I consider my personal entry into the administrative side of medicine to be unique. As a surgical intern at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania I quickly noticed there were many opportunities, both large and small, for improvement across the work I was doing. For example, there was a constant pressure to send patients home from the hospital early in the day, a task that may sound simple. Yet there were often lab tests and results we would have to wait for before patients could leave. I was fortunate enough to join a committee that recognized this problem and focused on making the system more efficient. Improvements made by this committee resulted in patients getting to go home earlier and more sick patients being able to receive care, a win-win. This was my first true experience in quality-related work and it ignited my career interests from that point forward.

While hospitals are measured against many nationally-imposed guidelines as part of our work, for me the meaning of Quality and Safety goes far beyond the data. My top priority is making sure patients receive the best care possible. To accomplish this, I recognize it is critical to involve, and learn from, front line staff when redesigning our systems and optimizing the quality of care delivered to patients. I learned this well as an intern and have never forgotten. In my new role, I look forward to engaging with the diverse Brigham Health community on what it believes are opportunities for improvement and how we can work together to accomplish system-wide change.

Growing up in the Boston area, this is a homecoming for me and my family. I look forward to sharing the challenges of this work with our providers and patients.

Ambulatory Safety Nets: Catching Cancer Diagnoses


For this post, we asked one of our Department of Quality and Safety medical directors, Sonali Desai, MD, MPH to discuss a safety improvement initiative related to patient diagnoses of cancer.

We have all been susceptible to the effects of multi-tasking: you unlock your smartphone to call someone, but are interrupted by an incoming text message, followed by an email from your supervisor. Before you know it, you have forgotten what you were doing with your phone in the first place. Health care is no different  —  the rapid pace of delivering care in the ambulatory setting, coupled with the wealth of data to process complex medical decisions, poses a similar multi-tasking risk to busy clinicians. What often keeps clinicians up at night is worrying about missing a diagnosis of cancer due to not following up on an abnormal test result.

You may wonder, how could this happen? Imagine that you undergo a CT scan of your chest for shortness of breath — although a serious diagnosis such as a blood clot or lung cancer is not found during the exam, a small incidental lung nodule is discovered. The nodule may or may not lead to cancer, but it often requires a follow-up CT scan in several months, or up to one year.

Or, consider a colonoscopy to screen for colon cancer that detects a few polyps.  These polyps are not cancerous but they warrant another colonoscopy be performed in a few years. The issue with these follow-up exams is that physicians’ offices often do not have reliable recall systems to ensure that all patients with incidental lung nodules or abnormal polyps return for the repeat testing they need months or years from when the first test was done – this is how something can fall through the cracks.

Recently at Brigham Health, we  piloted the concept of Ambulatory Safety Nets to help catch potential findings that could lead to cancer diagnoses, modeled after work done through the Kaiser Permanente SureNet programs.1 Ambulatory Safety Nets provide a way to help offload the cognitive burden on busy clinicians by creating a team that can help to centrally identify, coordinate, contact and track patients who need follow-up tests. At the Brigham, this project is being piloted for colon and lung cancer screenings. Ambulatory Safety Nets take a more proactive and centralized approach that can leverage technology to work closely with primary care practices. In our early efforts for the colon cancer safety net, we have been able to complete over 200 colonoscopies for patients at-risk for colon cancer based on abnormal prior colonoscopies and symptoms such as rectal bleeding and iron deficiency anemia. To date, we have identified at least one patient with a high-risk precancerous finding requiring surgery and several patients with polyps.

For our lung cancer safety net, we have found over 300 patients with incidental lung nodules using artificial intelligence on radiology reports. We have developed follow-up care plans with primary care and radiology for determining whether patients need further imaging or referral. We have launched a new program, Radiology Result Alert and Acknowledge for Development of Automated Resolution (RADAR), which leverages a web-based radiology result notification system to create collaborative care plans between radiologists and ordering clinicians, assists with scheduling and patient outreach of follow-up imaging, and tracks whether appropriate care has been delivered to patients.2

Reducing the burden on our physicians and developing an engaged team has provided the opportunity to raise the standard of care that we provide to our patients. We are working on expanding our pilot to encompass more preventive opportunities in breast, cervical and prostate cancer and to design safety nets for ambulatory medication errors and diagnostic errors.


1 Emani S, Sequist TD, Lacson R, Khorasani R, Jajoo K, Holtz L, Desai S. Ambulatory Safety Nets to Reduce Missed and Delayed Diagnoses of Cancer. Jt Comm J Qual Patient Saf. 2019 Jul 05. PMID: 31285149

2 Hammer MM, Kapoor N, Desai SP, Sivashanker KS, Lacson R, Demers JP, Khorasani R. Adoption of a Closed-Loop Communication Tool to Establish and Execute a Collaborative Follow-Up Plan for Incidental Pulmonary Nodules. AJR Am J Roentgenol. 2019 Feb 19; 1-5. PMID: 30779667