Revelations of troubling practices at a Seattle hospital deserve a swift and thorough response from health-care authorities.
Extremely troubling details of practices at Seattle’s Swedish Cherry Hill hospital’s neuroscience unit were revealed this week in a Times special investigation, “Quantity of Care.”
As shown by reporters Mike Baker and Justin Mayo, patient care appears to have suffered at a time when the neuroscience unit’s culture and business practices incentivize high volume and complicated procedures.
Rising caseloads diverted nurses, some of whom were forced to be on duty for 20 hours in a day.
Internal complaints poured in from staff, and a whistleblower raised concerns with the state Department of Health, whose officials decided they were unsubstantiated after a brief investigation.
These revelations should prompt soul searching and cultural changes by leaders at a hospital with a strong tradition of care and community service.
The reporting prompted a swift response from state health-care authorities.
Several lawmakers with expertise in health care are engaging.
State Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Kent, is questioning why the Department of Health did only a brief investigation after the whistleblower warned of inappropriate surgeries, increases in complications, unsupervised surgeries by fellows and staff complaints that had been ignored.
“Given the significant substantiation reported by The Seattle Times on Friday, I am requesting that the Department of Health reopen its investigation and vigorously pursue all significant allegations and evidence. No serious investigation lasts just a couple of days,” she said in a letter to state Health Secretary John Wiesman.
The agency rightly responded by reopening its investigation Thursday. It must thoroughly examine the facility practices highlighted by the Times.
Care also suffers when staff is overworked, such as nurses working 20 hours in a day under a loophole in state law. That could be addressed by several bills proposed in the Legislature.
The Washington State Patient Safety Act, sponsored by State Rep. Eileen Cody, a West Seattle Democrat and Group Health nurse, would require more reporting and transparency around hospital staffing plans. Another would expand rules to limit mandating overtime and breaks for nurses and other health-care workers.
More broadly, state and federal health-care authorities are steadily nudging providers toward a system that pays for quality of care and not quantity of output, using incentives and what Keiser calls a “soft-touch approach.”
“There are more assertive approaches we may be able to take in the near future,” Keiser said.
One vehicle for change is a five-year project with Medicaid to transform how Washington delivers and pays for medical services.
The reporting by Baker and Mayo shows the urgency of such reforms, the importance of diligent oversight — and the terrible toll that mistakes may take on patients and families.