Reading Quality Digest can be dangerous to your health

right tool for jobIn the June 2008 issue of Quality digest, there is an article by Jay Arthur entitled “Statistical Process Control for Healthcare” (1). After the usual boilerplate type of introduction, something caught my eye; namely, the so called good news that there is “inexpensive Excel based software to create control charts … .“ This made me go to the end of the article where sure enough the author just happens to sell such software. This may have been a good place for the author to introduce the term bias.

To understand a more serious problem with this article, consider a hospital process; namely analyzing blood glucose in a hospital laboratory. Because such a process has error, quality control samples are run. Say such a control has a target value of 100 mg/dL.  The values of the quality control samples are plotted by SPC software and rules are formulated. If the glucose control value is too high or too low, the process is said to be out of control and action is taken.

Now,  Mr. Arthur is trying to push SPC software not for a process but for errors in the process. For example, he uses the infection rate in a hospital. But the infection rate error is not a process that one wants to control – of course one does not want it to become worse – but its target is zero.

A more useful example than the hypothetical one provided by Mr. Arthur was published recently (2). Here, the authors were faced with an undesirable hospital infection error rate and set out to observe where errors occurred in the process of placing central lines. They then provided control measures and continued to track the error rate, which was reduced to zero. This is not SPC! It is much more like a FRACAS (Failure Reporting And Corrective Action System).

In another part of the article, Mr. Arthur suggests that “never events” can be tracked by SPC. Never events – a list of 28 such events have been put forth by the National Quality Forum – have as implied, targets of zero. Such an event is wrong site surgery. One should use something like FMEA (Failure Mode Effects Analysis) to reduce the risk of such events. It is silly to suggest SPC software for never events.


1.   See.

2.   An Intervention to Decrease Catheter-Related Bloodstream Infections in the ICU. Pronovost P, Needham D, Berenholtz S, Sinopoli D, Chu H, Cosgrove S, Sexton B, Hyzy R, Welsh R, Roth G, Bander J, Kepros J, Goeschel C N Engl J Med 355:2725, December 28, 2006

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