America’ s public health problem needs 21st-century solutions

This article originally appeared in Becker's Hospital Review.

Public health remains a serious concern in the U.S., for hospitals, staff and patients alike. Between rising rates of opioid abuse, obesity and other metrics of public health, our nation may not be as healthy as we’re inclined to think. I should know — my state is fast approaching a crisis.

Michigan ranks among the worst states for public health, according to a recent report from the Citizens Research Council of Michigan. Between poor health programs, the ongoing recovery from lead toxicity in Flint and Michigan’s own chapter of the opioid crisis, our state is quietly nearing a full-blown crisis. But by prioritizing patient safety in our state’s hospitals, we can start to turn our crisis around — and set an example for the healthcare industry across the country.

Our numbers don’t tell a great story: Michigan spends just $12.92 per capita on public health, ranking the Great Lakes State 42nd in the nation. We are among the ten worst states for heart disease rates, and score below average on most measurements of public health — our citizens are at increased risk for strokes, lung disease and early death.

Public health, especially in Michigan, is a Gordian knot of conflicting interests, unclear objectives and tight budgets. But one approach can help to untangle the knot, if not slice it all the way through.

An alarming, seemingly-obvious oversight is the failure to treat hospitals as ground zero for public health. Lawmakers at the federal and state level have their own part to play, but people working in hospital facilities across the country are truly on the front lines of our nation’s healthcare. These same people indicate that improving hospital’s access to medical technology and innovations is the first place to start and could offer the most immediate results.

While some of Michigan’s hospitals are the best in the world, the state as a whole lags behind the national average in both doctors and hospital rankings. That means that some Michiganders aren’t safe when they go to receive treatment — the opposite of why patients come to hospitals in the first place. This alarming shortcoming in patient safety is just a microcosm of a national issue — the U.S. ranks far behind other developed countries in this regard.

As our medical professionals have advocated, one of the most accessible and immediate solutions for reprioritizing patient safety is adopting new innovations and technologies that make hospitals the safe places they are meant to be. These new tools and methods save lives, speed up surgeries, create safer work environments and prevent costly - even life-threatening - medical errors. That’s why at Three Rivers Health, the hospital I work for, we’ve installed new technologies that protect both our patients and our staff.

For example, one risk that patients face when they go into surgery is the danger of leaving the hospital with a surgical tool left inside them. This issue — retained surgical items (RSIs) — is supposed to be a never event, yet it happens every day.

Many hospitals still use an error-prone, outdated manual counting system that involves a whiteboard and marker — not exactly 21st-century technology. With so many steps to follow and surgical tools to count, unintentional human error is bound to happen. That’s why our hospital has installed an advanced sponge-counting tool called SurgiCount to keep track of every surgical sponge that enters or exits a patient during surgery. It’s a small update that can have life-changing impacts for patient health outcomes.

Furthermore, patients aren’t the only ones facing safety issues in the operating room — in many hospitals, nurses and doctors put their health on the line during every operation. One little-known hazard is surgical smoke. During surgery, clinicians utilize electrosurgery to cut or cauterize tissue, causing smoke as a byproduct. This smoke contains a panoply of carcinogens rivaling tobacco smoke: in many ORs, a day of surgery can hurt your lungs as much as a full pack of cigarettes.

Many hospitals have no method of dealing with surgical smoke in the OR, even though new technology makes this completely preventable. In our ORs at Three Rivers Health, we’ve implemented a smoke evacuation pencil called the E-SEP that removes all surgical smoke at the source before it can be inhaled. Again: small and accessible innovation, life-changing impact. Health workers risk their own health to serve the public, and our hospitals need updated technology to keep patients safe.

Up and down the state, Michigan is in the middle of an escalating health crisis. If our nation is slow to take notice, other states will suffer in the same way. Fortunately, we know how to begin fixing the problem: recognize hospitals are on the front lines of the public health crisis and adopt new and accessible innovations that can provide immediate improvement — for the safety of our patients, our workers and our country.