FDA-produced TV aims to boost patient safety

Showing plus telling is the intent behind a risk-communication program designed to reduce medical errors.

By Susan J. Landers — Posted Sept. 4, 2006

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The talking heads speaking earnestly into the camera in a television studio just beyond the Washington, D.C., beltway aren't dissecting the latest Capitol Hill happenings. This studio in Gaithersburg, Md., belongs to the Food and Drug Administration, and the co-hosts are discussing safety issues related to FDA-regulated products.

It's not "Meet the Press." It's "Patient Safety News," a show that has been running for five years and reaches thousands of viewers via satellite television and the Internet. Its target audience includes physicians and other health care professionals as well as risk managers and educators. The intent of the free service is to spread the word widely.

Safety concerns were the reason the agency began the program, said Anita Rayner, MPH, a co-host and editorial manager. The Institute of Medicine's report, "To Err is Human," had come out a few years earlier and revealed that more than 7,000 deaths annually were due to medication errors.

And the errors still seem to be occurring. A July 20 IOM report found that medication mistakes remain common at every stage, from prescribing and administering drugs to monitoring a patient's response.

After the first report, the agency decided to try communicating risk visually, Rayner said. Some stories "really screamed for [it]." This approach, she added, was particularly appropriate for explaining the FDA's recently announced campaign with the Institute for Safe Medication Practices to eliminate unsafe medical abbreviations. It's relatively easy to demonstrate on screen how abbreviations such as "U" for units, can be mistaken for an "0," a "4" or even a "cc."

Plus, some people learn better by seeing than by reading. One picture really can be worth a thousand words, continued Rayner, an epidemiologist and a health risk communicator. Her co-host, Mark Barnett, MPH, is the show's executive editor and also a health risk communicator.

They work with a crew of TV professionals in the FDA studio and collaborate with local hospitals and pharmacies to film scenes on site.

Effective communication

The intent of the program is to provide concrete recommendations whenever possible, Rayner said. "Rather than just saying, 'This is a problem,' we like to add, 'Here's what you can do about it.' "

A show in June, for instance, alerted viewers to the errors that can occur when color-coded hospital wristbands differ from facility to facility. In one hospital a yellow bracelet meant "Do not resuscitate" while in another, it indicated something entirely different. Consider using bracelets that have preprinted instructions or removing them when a patient arrives at a new facility, the hosts suggested.

Seven to nine short segments are included in each month's 15-minute broadcast. The program is sent in its entirety to hospitals and nursing homes via several satellite networks. In addition, it is available on the Internet, where people can watch all the segments, a few or just one. It also can be downloaded onto an iPod, a feature added a few months ago that has proven popular, Rayner said.

The topics are varied. July choices included the increased risk for suicide among young adults taking the antidepressant Paxil (paroxetine hydrochloride) and the possible contamination of fluoride rinses. June offerings included the safe operation of hospital beds and the pros and cons of inhaled insulin.

The text of the videos is also available for printing.

"We like to make the tool as flexible as possible," Rayner said. "One of the basic tenets of communication is you can't overcommunicate, and finding different ways to communicate is all to the good."

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External links

Food and Drug Administration's "Patient Safety News" (link)

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