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Live From HIMSS: The Value of Celebrity

April 5, 2009
by Mark Hagland
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Today’s keynote speaker, actor Dennis Quaid, gave a compelling speech to several thousand HIMSS attendees at the McCormick Place convention center in Chicago this afternoon, and in the process, demonstrated the value of celebrity to promote an important cause. Speaking of the heparin dosaging-related medication error that nearly killed his and his wife Kimberly’s newborn twins, Thomas Boone and Zoe Grace, in November 2007, Quaid spoke both of the life-altering experience of being involved in such a dramatic and dangerous medication-error incident, and of the energy and focus that have turned him into a patient safety advocate as a result.

The broad outlines of the heparin-related medication error story are well-known, though I must say that the story gains in the retelling. In addition, one fact that had not been widely reported was that the twins had each received not one, but two near-fatal 10,000-ml doses of the blood-thinner within 24 hours, which resulted in their coming very near to death at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles 17 months ago. That fact alone is astonishing and worth noting.

But what I was thinking during Quaid’s speech, which was interlaced with pieces of information and commentary from medical experts and other content, was what a terrific scenario-based case study this terrible situation has provided for the healthcare industry; and I further reflected on Quaid’s courage in taking on the role of a patient safety advocate, something that he frankly admitted at the outset of his talk to the HIMSS audience was something that he could never have imagined would be part of his life-path.

For one thing, Quaid was clearly a bit nervous, speaking to a group of thousands of healthcare executives and clinicians. As an actor, he is used to learning lines for a movie or performance, and delivering them in a convincing way as a character in a story. But in telling his family’s story in a simple, clear way, unencumbered by policy jargon or pontification, Quaid is bringing greater media and policymaker attention than ever before to a problem we simply must fix in healthcare. And as he did when he appeared in hearings on Capitol Hill on the subject, today, Quaid made a clear and streamlined pitch to the HIMSS audience: he was EveryPatient/EveryFamilyMember, and he said in simple and unambiguous terms what medication errors, and medical errors in general, do to real families across the country every year. What’s more, Quaid is very aware of the power that his celebrity carries to garner greater attention to the problem, and is consciously using that power to prod the healthcare system forward. And that is the unexpected gift in an experience that clearly still haunts him personally.

Fortunately, the good people at Cedars-Sinai took the Quaid twins incident and learned, really learned from it, committing to a dramatic improvement in medication safety, and finally pushing through towards CPOE, closed-loop meds administration, and other important clinical IS advances. I find it almost karmic, in fact, that this incident occurred at Cedars-Sinai, which for years has been infamous in healthcare for the initial failure of its efforts several years ago to mandate CPOE adoption by its physicians.

So, in some strange way, the near-death experience of two newborns of a Hollywood celebrity couple ended up compelling forward a hospital that had hit a roadblock in adopting critical clinical IS advances. And thus, the “hospital of the stars” in Los Angeles took the downside of a celebrity-related medical error and transformed it into a burning platform for technology-facilitated patient safety progress. And in the process, it did what some hospitals in other cities and states still haven’t done, and that is to move ahead quickly on an issue of great interest and importance to the public and to policymakers.

So in the end, the fact that we live in a celebrity-mesmerized culture turns out to have a silver lining, when it produces a narrative like this one, which gives a face to an issue of such vital importance. Congratulations to the HIMSS organization for choosing the perfect opening keynote speaker to energize its attendees forward, with patients and families at the forefront of our thoughts, in the course of this conference.

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