Should one focus on a failure in a procedure or the outcome of such a failure?

February 14, 2008

Withholding payment for adverse events is a financial incentive to promote patient safety. Whether this incentive makes financial sense is something I will comment on later or perhaps not at all. For now, my comments are about the policy as it recently appeared (1).

The authors suggest the following criteria to withhold payment.

·         Evidence demonstrates that the bulk of the adverse events in question can be prevented by widespread adoption of achievable practices.

·         The events can be measured accurately, in a way that is auditable.

·         The events resulted in clinically significant patient harm.

·         It is possible, through chart review, to differentiate the adverse events that began in the hospital from those that were “present on admission” (POA).

The problem is with the third bullet and can perhaps be illustrated by the following figure.

In this figure FMEA events are shown by the dashed line.  The red dashed line is before FMEA. The green dashed line shows that after a successful FMEA, risk of failures has been reduced. FRACAS events are shown by the solid lines. The green line shows a reduction in the failure rate after FRACAS.

Keep in mind, for the dashed lines (FMEA), no failures have occurred, while for the solid lines, failures have occurred.

Now the policy defines a failure as an adverse patient outcome. One can view outcomes as the end of  an event cascade as in the next figure.

Assume that event C is an adverse patient outcome. According to the policy, payment is withheld only when event C is observed. In the first figure, the relevant concern area is shown by the ellipse as it is assumed that these are all high severity (severe patient harm) events.

This policy therefore excludes the following cases:

All FMEA events. That is, a procedure with a correctable high risk will be excluded from this policy because the event has not yet occurred. Considered the case of the Duke transplant error (2), before it happened. One can infer that this was a high risk procedure that would have benefited from a FMEA. In essence, this policy waits for disasters to happen.

All near miss events. Consider the case of the patient who had an MRI (3). Blood pressure monitor tubing had to be disconnected for the MRI. After the procedure, the tubing was incorrectly connected to an IV line. Before air was delivered from the automated blood pressure monitor, a family member noticed that things didn’t look right and contacted a nurse, who corrected the problem. Thus, there was no adverse event.

All defective procedures that don’t result in severe patient harm. Consider a healthcare worker who violates hospital policy (at risk behavior according to Marx (4)), which results in a patient fall. In this case, the fall results in a minor injury.  This is an important case because the policy fails to properly reflect risk management principles.

For a procedure that has a problem (e.g., a failed event), one has to classify the severity of the failed event and its probability (FMEA) or frequency of occurrence (FRACAS). The severity is classified not necessarily by the failed event but by the effect of the failed event. The effect is itself an event and can be a spectrum of severities. In the case of a patient fall, there is a distribution of harm associated with the fall event – some falls will result in severe harm, some will result in minor harm. Traditionally, in risk management, if severe harm is possible, then severity is associated with severe harm, even if the probability of severe harm is low. In this sense, severity is equated with potential outcome, regardless of whether that specific outcome has occurred.

One also has to classify the probability (FMEA) or frequency of occurrence of the event (FRACAS). Here, assuming FMEA, one could choose between the probability of the failed event or the probability of the effect of the event (the adverse outcome). It is recommended to use the probability of the failed event, not the probability of the effect of the event. This is because one usually has control over the failed event and does not have control over the effect of the event.

Example: If a clinical laboratory provides a clinician with an erroneous result and the effect of that could be patient harm, the event is classified as severe. The probability is the probability of erroneous result, not the probability of patient harm, because patient harm is outside of control of the clinical laboratory (the clinician might not act on the result, might suspect it is erroneous and request it to be repeated, and so on).


This policy will miss many quality issues and deviates from traditional risk management.


  1. Wachter RM ,Foster NE and Dudley RA Medicare’s Decision to Withhold Payment for Hospital Errors: The Devil Is in the Details The Joint Commission Journal on Quality and Patient Safety 2008;34: 116-123, see
  2. See
  3. See
  4. Marx, D. Patient Safety and the “Just Culture”: A Primer for Health Care Executives