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COVID-19 Responses Underscore Importance of Patient Safety

Image of Every day, patient safety is one of the top priorities for the Defense Health Agency. Patient safety means providing ready, reliable care to service members, veterans, and dependents no matter the circumstances. (Photo: Defense Health Agency). Every day, patient safety is one of the top priorities for the Defense Health Agency. Patient safety means providing ready, reliable care to service members, veterans, and dependents no matter the circumstances. (Photo: Defense Health Agency)

Leaders across the Military Health System have to support patient safety in their everyday actions. This develops trust, and allows anyone who might identify patient safety concerns to speak up, including health care professionals, non-clinical staff, patients, and their families.

And while every day is a patient safety day, a unique spotlight shines on this issue during Patient Safety Awareness Week, an international education and awareness-building campaign at the local level.

"It's Important to take this additional time to focus on patient safety and being resilient in our daily practices," said Heidi King, chief of the DOD Patient Safety Program (PSP) within the Defense Health Agency.

The theme for this year's Patient Safety Awareness Week, March 13-19, is "Standardizing Safety Solutions: Uniting for Ready, Reliable Care."

The MHS introduced the Ready Reliable Care (RRC) approach in 2021 as an extension of the High Reliability Organization (HRO) concepts. The MHS adopted HRO concepts to improve health care access, quality, transparency, and patient engagement.

An HRO standardizes patient safety practices and policies to reduce patient harm, as well as to encourage openness in communications with patients and their families.

"We've learned from Army, Navy, and Air Force HRO advancements, and DHA has embraced the Ready Reliable Care approach in both clinical and non-clinical settings," King explained.

Patient safety is paramount in all aspects of health care delivery. "Standardization of safe care practices plays a key role in this effort," King said, and MHS partners with internal and external stakeholders, and beneficiaries to share lessons learned, leading practices and other improvement opportunities, she noted.

RRC Safety Communications Bundle

The RRC Safety Communications Bundle (SCB) is part of the focus of this year's Patient Safety Awareness Week across the MHS.

The bundle is a set of six, standardized, evidence-based safety practices that was published in DHA policy in January, 2022.

These practices are "designed to improve the culture of safety and reduce workplace-related stressors that contribute to burnout" among health care workers, said Dr. Julie Kinn, DHA's patient safety solutions lead for the PSP. Overall, "its goal is to reduce preventable harm."

How Patient Safety and COVID-19 Responses Came Together

As the COVID-19 pandemic rapidly developed, the MHS fast-tracked efforts to preserve patient safety.

For example, MHS significantly increased the use of telehealth within a short period of time and ramped up the Nurses' Health Advice Line.

It created drive-thru pharmacies and pop-up COVID-19 testing sites, unveiled new tests and lab assays for COVID-19, and increased focus on infection prevention and control procedures.

Once COVID-19 vaccines became available to the MHS in December 2020, medical teams immediately set up mass vaccination efforts worldwide for service members on a tiered basis.

A recent RRC HRO awards ceremony highlighted several examples of this vaccination effort. Two examples are the vaccination program at the U.S. Naval Hospital in Rota, Italy; and at the Naval Hospital in Okinawa, Japan.

In Rota, the naval hospital's top experts accepted the recommendations of local physician and nursing champions and quality and patient safety leaders to align vaccination guidelines that included scheduling, screening, administering, observing, and documenting vaccination following host-nation and military base policies for social distancing, according to an abstract by Navy Cmdr. (Dr.) David Paz.

Before Rota got its vaccine shipments, it held five vaccination dry-runs in collaboration with operational leaders, and nurse team leads created "huddle tools," Paz wrote.

Over four months of near daily mass vaccinations, the hospital's team administered 8,000 vaccines with no adverse events and reached a service-high 94% vaccination rate for active-duty hospital staff, and 88% for all other active duty on base, Paz wrote.

In Okinawa, the commanding officer chartered the "#vaxoki team" in September 2020 with the mission to provide COVID-19 vaccinations for Okinawa's 50,000 beneficiaries, according to an abstract from Navy Lt. Cmdr. (Dr.) Jenny Smith.

Since December 2020, the #vaxoki team has given more than 60,000 vaccinations. The #vaxoki team consistently vaccinated over 150 beneficiaries per hour during its busiest times with more than 1,000 vaccines administered in a single day, Smith wrote.

Find out more information about the Patient Safety Program and the RRC HRO Awards Program.

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