Confessions of a Hospital Administrator: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

A look at recent data that explains the impact of uninspiring workplace culture. Nurses General Nursing Article

You've probably heard of the now controversial Johns Hopkins study that medical mistakes are the third leading cause of death in the U.S. When, as part of an assignment, I asked a Chief Medical Officer at a large healthcare system about medical mistakes, he gave me what I thought a very insightful answer:

"In medicine, we rely on the heroic efforts of doctors and nurses not to make mistakes," he told me. "But people can make mistakes. It's not a matter of fault, but a bad process."

His answer got me to thinking that if most mistakes are a bad process, what kind of mistakes fall into the rare category of intentional? I once worked at a large hospital system as the media spokesperson. We had an inexplicable incident in which hundreds of patients were exposed to contagious diseases because two sterilization techs improperly steamed surgical instrument packs. The techs, for reasons they never explained, did not follow a process with which they were very familiar.

So I started looking around on - as a retired Navy buddy likes to say - "the worldwide Interweb" to see what I could find. Nurses still come off looking pretty good. In case you didn't read my first column last year, nurses have been ranked as the most honest, ethical profession by the public 14 years in a row in a Gallup poll.

But this doesn't make the job any easier. Another recent poll found that of the five factors that make up the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index - purpose, social, financial, community and physical well-being -more than half of all healthcare workers are thriving in none or only one element of well-being. Additionally, fewer than one in ten workers is thriving in all five elements. As a former hospital administrator, this makes me ashamed.

I don't know if this falls under a bad process or not. But a recent study just found that if a healthcare worker knows they are being observed, they are twice as likely to comply with handwashing protocols. I'd be very interested in hearing your thoughts for this finding, which has been dubbed the Hawthorne Effect.

Lax handwashing practices pale compared to the $1 billion Medicare fraud bust the feds just made in Florida. Three owners of a home health and assisted living company, as well as a hospital administrator and a physician's assistant were just indicted on money laundering and conspiracy committed over 14 years. Given that close to $2.5 trillion is spent on more than four billion health claims a year, $1 billion may not seem like much (HA - just kidding...). But the laundry list of charges turned up the usual stock in trade for fraud. This included: billing for services never provided; up-coding, including unbundling; performing medically unnecessary procedures; falsifying diagnosis and test results; accepting kickbacks for patient referrals (inurnment); and waiving patient co-pays and deductibles.

Physicians have their challenges as well. A recently published JAMA article found significant evidence that doctors who received as little as one free meal from a drug sales rep prescribed the discussed drug at a rate that was significantly higher than their peers. A ProPublica story and a Harvard Medical Business School study earlier this year both concluded that doctors who accepted payments from pharmaceutical and medical device industries prescribed those specific brands at a higher rate than their peers.

In an article in the New York Times, an M.D. clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the N.Y.U School of Medicine wrote an article titled "The Illicit Perks of the M.D. Club." He cited a former Cigna executive whistle-blower who stated that "insurance companies profit by introducing hurdles in the coverage and claims process." The author also noted that since 2010 when the ACA was adopted, "the major insurance companies have seen their stock prices soar. Though the act expanded coverage to millions, a report last year by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation revealed that 41 percent of health plans sold on the government exchanges had physician networks described as "small" or "extra-small," covering less than 25 percent and 10 percent of local doctors, respectively."

So what does all this mean?

To me, it suggests that our healthcare system is only as good as its weakest link. Asking unit secretaries to convey orders, appointing nurses as security guards and expecting physicians to deal with insurance companies are, as the Chief Medical Officer said to me, "a bad process". The people in a hospital whose primary job is to identify bad processes are administrators.

There are administrators in every organization who develop best practices for safety, quality, compliance and ethics. But a hospital administrator's primary job is to make sure everyone - from nurses to physicians to housekeepers - feel inspired to get up and come to work. It takes a servant leader to be really successful. This is easy to say, but hard to do.

One of the biggest misperceptions about servant leaders is they don't hold people accountable to the values and metrics of the organization. My experience is that it is easy to hold people accountable when they have a say in what the values and metrics should be. This, I finally learned, is the easiest way I know to be in charge. Because there is no competition for an engaged workforce.

Specializes in Administrator inspired by nurses.

Or unionization. I worked with unions in two hospitals, including a nurses union, and we got along fine. Staff turn to union and lawsuits when they feel they have no other options. It's a shame for both sides, because when leadership creates a great workplace culture, performance metrics become top tier and everyone is happier at work.

Specializes in ER.

Servant leader, you seem like a person with integrity from what I read, unlike all the administrators I have seen in hospital systems I worked at. The main reason I and other nurses do not trust administration is not because there is an incongruent process that causes mistakes or because we don't get a special parking spot like the physicians do. It's the STAFFING. When administrators have their faces placarded with big grin and tell everyone how much they care and love the community and is all about compassion and what not, I once as staff nurse, did not see congruency or genuineness in that statement because in real life, we were short and short and short and getting shafted from every corner by management and administration. So everyone pretty much had impression of administrators getting big bonuses by cutting staff and budget and freezing raises all the while they kept harpening on the fake facade of we-care-for-you. Now for your defense, I would never want to work as a manager or administrator at an hospital, but if administrators turned their attention to low staffing primarily instead of putting blame on intangible abstracts like "hourly rounding increases patient safety", things could be a lot better.

Specializes in PICU, Pediatrics, Trauma.
When I started as a hospital administrator in 2000, an older guy explained to me about how hospitals were becoming more complex to management: "You know, it used to be in the old days you counted the money in the morning, played golf with the doctors in the afternoon and underpaid all the nurses all the time." He was serious. While I know some good administrators who really care about their staffs, not allowing nurses time to take lunch or bathroom breaks or staffing so charting can be done properly makes me think we're not so far removed from those days in some hospitals.

All you mention is important, but especially the charting properly. When you get so busy you have no time but to run around putting out fires and then have to chart at the end of your shift, you risk forgetting details or time lines being in order. And likely, when you are this busy, something happened that is significant and important to have accurate charting on.

Since staffing ratios and breaks became mandatory in my state, hospitals have had to provide "break relief" nurses. You would think that could solve that problem....but no. There is one person to provide 2, 15 min. And 1, 30 minute break for 8 nurses. Do the math. More often than not, it became a situation of "take your break now or don't get one.". Or, "if you don't take your break now, then are you refusing a break?". It didn't matter what you were in the middle of...Blood transfusion, complex dressing change...and then you are to give only the briefest report before leaving. I didn't feel comfortable with this. Safety for patients was not assured.

GIVE US FEWER PATIENTS and we could accomplish our work safely and with continuity. When I was the break relief nurse, there were times I couldnt complete all the things required/due for the patients during the time frame the nurse was on break. And, I was not at all familiar enough with some to just jump in and start giving meds or whatever. These were very sick patients. All were high-acuity as hospitals discharge now-a-days 5 mins after being stable. (Exaggeration, but you know what I mean). We don't have CNAs/techs to do VS or help with bathing etc...The nurse does it all. So for those of you from other states, please don't say we have it easy. These things are time consuming. It's all the same in the end.

R/T charting in a timely fashion. More than once, I had a patient who unexpectedly had discharge orders, before I even charted what I already did, now had to go into the discharge teaching and all the other discharge charting, and by the way, your new admission just rolled in the door...from the ER with STAT orders. Or...We decided to float you for the last 4 hours and they are waiting to give you report on the next unit. So, hurry up and finish your charting.

Specializes in Administrator inspired by nurses.

Well said - it's the staffing, stupid. From my own experience, I have found that balance between what administrators want to control labor costs (the biggest expense in hospitals) and what nurses feel they need to work safely and sanely, is possible. It's difficult for administrators to achieve the other metrics they care about (quality, patient satisfaction, outcome) when the nursing staff is angry every day. I read a lot of anger in the responses to my posts. There's no way of getting around the truth: such workplace emotion is a failure of leadership.

Didn't you ever feel like simplifying our healthcare system? Starting with the patient and working from there. What does the patient actually need, not want, but need? Of course one would require magical powers to clean up so much of what we do that is not necessary. So much of what we all in health care do is about preventing lawsuits. The financing of course is major issue and the insurane companies now have one of the most important voices in patient care. It boggles the mind how we have gotten to where to where are. I am now a patient and dread every encounter with health care because I go expecting the worse. It isn't that the professionals are bad, it is that I can feel their anxiety as they try to rush to complete all the tasks. From this side I feel exasperated, I feel sick and then I have to deal with a very non-patient friendly system. I just spent 3 days trying to find a doctor in my town. There are at least 20 close by, but my insurance will not allow me to go to any of those. By the grace of God, I went to one of the approved doctors and was amazed at how he had simplified the process so well. I was in and out in one hour with blood work done in the office. The nurse sat with me before my appointment and took an excellent health history, focused, compassionate, efficient. There were no checklist, only a short half page of information, the doctor came in and understood me better than anyone has in 5 years. I left with clear instructions and an excellent treatment plan. In addition he sees walk in. I almost felt as if he was snubbing the system. No endless paperwork, not overly preoccupied with the checklist of preventives, just solved the problem. There is something to be said for simplifying, I did not feel stressed and he seemed to be fine, Also there were like 40 signs that said no cell phones and there was a quiet atmosphere.

Specializes in Administrator inspired by nurses.

And administrators wonder why when charts get pulled during a regulatory inspection (JC, state) or a there is noncompliance. Or they wonder why medical errors (meds, testing, etc). Inadequate floor staffing is stepping over dollars to save dimes.

In the opening paragraph of the OP, the OP referenced the John Hopkin's study about medical mistakes, and then asked a Chief Medical Officer about medical mistakes. The OP said that the CMO replied: In medicine, we rely on the heroic efforts of doctors and nurses not to make mistakes.” But people can make mistakes. It's not a matter of fault, but a bad process.”

Mistake: An error, fault, misunderstanding, a misguided or wrong action.

Not all health care practitioners efforts are heroic. And heroic effort combined with poor judgement or providing care that is below the Standard of Care has the potential to cause actual harm to patients just the same as poor effort by health care practitioners does.

Medical mistakes can indeed be a matter of fault.

It appears to me that the OP is trying on this thread to establish that medical mistakes are due to bad processes, and deflect attention away from personal accountability/responsibiity for medical errors. Yet, a practitioner who practices below the Standard of Care, who is negligent in the care they provide, has made a choice to practice in this way, although possibly they could argue that their choice is the result of "administrative processes." In Court an individual practitioner is held individually accountable for their practice and for the quality of the care they provided; their failure to provide quality care that resulted in harm to a patient is not excused on the grounds of a "bad process."

Specializes in Administrator inspired by nurses.

I have occasionally come across clinicians who provided lousy or even negligent care and this is truly shocking. The main character in my novel "Medical Necessity" is such a person. However, most medical errors I investigated as an administrator were, in my experience, based on a bad process. I agree this is still often considered to be negligent, which is why hospitals settle so many lawsuits out of court (it becomes a business decision for the company covering with ). But a medical error, in good organizations, is an opportunity to improve patient care.

Specializes in Registered Nurse.
Not to mention, violating labor laws by charging people for breaks they don't get. That would not work with me.

It is expected in a lot of places. Also- to get off the clock before you finish charting. So many do it. I have been rebelling. lol

Specializes in PICU, Pediatrics, Trauma.
Well said - it's the staffing, stupid. From my own experience, I have found that balance between what administrators want to control labor costs (the biggest expense in hospitals) and what nurses feel they need to work safely and sanely, is possible. It's difficult for administrators to achieve the other metrics they care about (quality, patient satisfaction, outcome) when the nursing staff is angry every day. I read a lot of anger in the responses to my posts. There's no way of getting around the truth: such workplace emotion is a failure of leadership.

The minute you are able to clone yourself, please do!

They wanted to CUT our staffing once. We asked a board member to follow us for one day to see what we did. The board member made it for 4 hours, and left the floor saying "CUT your staff?!? I don't see how you do what you do with the staff you HAVE!!!!!"

The hospital was only posting part-time positions for awhile (anyone remember when UPS was doing that about 12 or so years ago?) Our hospital thought it was a Great idea. I had been there long enough to know who to drop information to that it would get "carried" back to the powers that be efficiently, so I "dropped" that we were talking union. Suddenly, full time positions were being posted again. Imagine that?!?!

Specializes in Administrator inspired by nurses.

Ha - very smart counter strategy - well done.