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This article describes the results of the Interventions to Safeguard Safety breakout session of the 2011 Academic Emergency Medicine (AEM) consensus conference entitled “Interventions to Assure Quality in the Crowded Emergency Department.” Using a multistep nominal group technique, experts in emergency department (ED) crowding, patient safety, and systems engineering defined knowledge gaps and priority research questions related to the maintenance of safety in the crowded ED. Consensus was reached for seven research priorities related to interventions to maintain safety in the setting of a crowded ED. Included among these are: 1) How do routine corrective processes and compensating mechanism change during crowding? 2) What metrics should be used to determine ED safety? 3) How can checklists ensure safer care and what factors contribute to their success or failure? 4) What constitutes safe staffing levels / ratios? 5) How can we align emergency medicine (EM)-specific patient safety issues with national patient safety issues? 6) How can we develop metrics and skills to recognize when an ED is getting close to catastrophic overload conditions? and 7) What can EM learn from experts and modeling from fields outside of medicine to develop innovative solutions? These priorities have the potential to inform future clinical and human factors research and extramural funding decisions related to this important topic.
The 2001 Institute of Medicine’s (IOM) landmark publication, “Crossing the Quality Chasm,” called for reform of the American health care system to ensure that all Americans receive quality care and defined six domains of quality: safety, patient-centeredness, timeliness, efficiency, effectiveness, and equity.1 Emergency department (ED) closures, limited access to primary care, and population expansion within the United States are well documented, with subsequent increases in ED visits and increasing ED lengths of stay.2,3 Over the past decade, multiple studies have shown an association between ED crowding and the negative effect on quality of emergency care. The majority of these studies demonstrate associations with delays in the timeliness of care.4–7 However, a growing body of literature also demonstrates the negative effect that crowding has on the other quality domains, including patient-centeredness and effectiveness.8–12
The definition of ED crowding, the study of its contributing factors, and its quantification have undergone a great deal of scrutiny and refinement over the past decade. The input, throughput, output model postulated by Asplin et al.13 now serves as the predominant paradigm for discussing crowding. Emergency medicine (EM) researchers and an increasing number of policy-makers now agree that ED crowding results from a complex interplay of multiple factors and is primarily related to overall hospital crowding.11,13–17
Similarly, the definition of patient safety has evolved over time. The IOM states that health care should be safe and defines safe care as the avoidance of injuries to patients from the care that is intended to help them.1 However, harm can occur without errors, and errors can occur without harm. Thus, since 2001, the concept of safety has expanded from this overly simplified definition of the absence of harm to a broader concept that includes examining what goes right, how to replicate those positive solutions (positive deviance), and evaluating and utilizing resilience of the systems.18
To date, a paucity of data exists to chronicle the effect of crowding on patient safety in the ED setting. Fewer studies still have evaluated the efficacy of interventions aimed at mitigating the effect of crowding in the ED on patient safety beyond using alternate sites for treating or boarding patients.19,20
The ultimate solution to mitigate the effect of ED crowding on safety is to eliminate crowding. Until that time, interventions to ensure the delivery of quality care during crowding must be identified, developed, and implemented. As we move further away from achieving the goal of eradicating crowding, there is an evolving and growing interest in mitigating the effect of ED crowding on quality of care. Academic Emergency Medicine (AEM), the journal of the Society for Academic Emergency Medicine (SAEM), convened a consensus conference entitled “Interventions to Assure Quality in the Crowded Emergency Department” in conjunction with its 2011 SAEM annual meeting. This article describes the results of the “Interventions to Safeguard Safety” breakout session of the consensus conference. The objective of this session was to gather expert opinion to define knowledge gaps and priority research questions related to interventions designed to mitigate the effect of ED crowding on safety. This article summarizes the consensus-based recommendations made by this group and should help inform future research and funding in these areas.
The AEM consensus conference targeted EM researchers, medical directors, department chairs, hospital administrators, and policy-makers with interests in crowding. We used a modified nominal group technique to develop a set of agreed-upon knowledge gaps and priority research questions for future investigations related to interventions designed to maintain patient safety in the crowded ED. This technique uses a highly structured meeting facilitated by an expert on the topic and consists of multiple rounds (usually two) in which the panelists rate, discuss, and rerate a series of items.21 Due to time constraints at the consensus conference, we applied this technique in stages, prior to and during the conference. A preconference working group was formed to develop a preliminary set of eight priority research questions or knowledge gaps to be presented at the safety breakout session of the AEM consensus conference. The preliminary research agenda was presented to the breakout session attendees who were encouraged to develop additional questions. From this all-inclusive list, breakout session attendees voted to establish a final set of six to eight priority research questions or knowledge gaps.
Experts in ED crowding, patient safety, and systems engineering were invited to participate in the preconference working group. Potential participants were identified by the conference chairs through prior publication in these arenas, recommendations from the SAEM Crowding Interest Group, and direct contact of specific patient safety and systems engineering specialists, to obtain an 11-member group representative of key stakeholders (listed in the footnotes).
The preconference working group addressed the following open-ended questions through several rounds of communications via e-mail and conference calls: 1) what are the current knowledge gaps related to interventions aimed to safeguard safety in the crowded ED? and 2) what are the highest priority research questions related this issue?
The working group recognized early in this process that while there is a growing body of literature documenting the harmful effects of crowding, there is a paucity of data assessing its effects on patient safety or interventions to mitigate potential deterioration of patient safety. Furthermore, it is unlikely that many interventions designed to maintain safe conditions would apply only during crowded times. Thus, the working group’s efforts focused on identifying knowledge gaps and prioritizing interventions that were likely to be most beneficial during crowded periods. The working group categorized these into basic knowledge, theoretical knowledge, and applied knowledge as follows:
From this list, members of the preconference working group identified eight priority knowledge gaps and research questions (Figure 1, asterisks).
The eight priority knowledge gaps and research questions generated by the preconference working group were presented to the 36 attendees of the 1-hour “Interventions to Safeguard Safety” breakout session at the 2011 AEM consensus conference. Of the 36 attendees, five were members of the preconference working group. This allowed those in attendance to engage in an interactive feedback session to clarify each knowledge gap and priority research question and to express their understanding of the logic and relative importance of each item. All proposed knowledge gaps and priority research questions were reviewed and participants were encouraged to provide additional knowledge gaps or priority research questions not previously described.
An inclusive list of knowledge gaps and research questions generated by the preconference working group and refined during the safety breakout session was divided into the same three categories (basic, applied, and theoretical knowledge). Breakout session attendees were asked to vote for up to eight priority knowledge gaps and / or research questions. Voting was anonymous and completed prior to the end of the breakout session. The votes were tallied and those receiving the highest counts represent the consensus-based recommendations (Figure 1).
The consensus-based recommendations address knowledge gaps at multiple system levels, from the larger ED-inpatient system to individual provider-level interactions. These recommendations also address both basic and applied research directions.
These consensus-based recommendations have several potential limitations. First, although attempts were made to include representatives from key stakeholders, participation may have been biased. While the preconference working group was formed to provide a foundation upon which to build at the consensus conference, it is possible that introduction of the knowledge gaps and research questions posed by this group precluded introduction of additional noteworthy issues, given the time limitation of the discussion at the in-person meeting. The SAEM group is composed of leaders in academic EM, resulting in a lack of representation of nonacademic ED settings. There is a potential for introducing a bias toward recommendations that may only be appropriate for one of the two types of practice settings, given their inherent differences. Additionally, conference attendees were primarily individual investigators who do not represent funding agencies. It is unknown whether the identified priority research questions align with the priorities of potential funding agencies.
Using a consensus approach, we developed a set of priorities for future research related to interventions to safeguard safety in the crowded ED. These priorities have the potential to improve future clinical and human factors research and extramural funding in this domain.
Funding for this conference was made possible (in part) by 1R13HS020139-01 from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ). The views expressed in written conference materials or publications and by speakers and moderators do not necessarily reflect the official policies of the Department of Health and Human Services, nor does mention of trade names, commercial practices, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government. This issue of Academic Emergency Medicine is funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Preconference working group members: Jameel Abualenain, Karen Cosby, Rollin J. (Terry) Fairbanks, Christopher Fee, Kendall Hall, Gail Lenehan, Brad Morrison, Kevin O’Connor, Robert Stephens, Robert Wears, and Barbara Youngberg.
CC session participants: James Amsterdam, Dominik Aronsky, Brent Asplin, Chandra Aubin, William Baker, Christopher Beach, John Becher, Russ Braun, Theodore Christopher, Fergal Cummins, Kevin Ferguson, Christina Gindele, Matthew Gratton, Jason Hack, Leon Haley, Jr., Kendall Hall, Peter Hill, Brian Holroyd, Kurt Isenberger, Renaldo Johnson, John Kelly, Richard Martin, Ryan Mutter, Marie-France Petchy, Timothy Reeder, Drew Richardson, Richard Ruddy, Caitlin Schaninger, Jeremiah Schuur, Robert Sherwin, Robert Shesser, Dell Simmons, and David Sklar.
This manuscript represents the consensus findings for the Interventions to Safeguard Safety component of the 2011 Academic Emergency Medicine Consensus Conference entitled “Interventions to Assure Quality in the Crowded Emergency Department (ED)” held in Boston, MA.
This paper does not represent the policy of either the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). The views expressed herein are those of the authors and no official endorsement by AHRQ or DHHS is intended or should be inferred.
The authors have no disclosures or conflicts of interest to report.