The Partnership for Patients: The Inside Scoop on a Game Changing Safety Initiative

By  |  April 12, 2011 | 

An hour ago, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius and Medicare chief Don Berwick announced the “Partnership for Patients,” a far-reaching federal initiative designed to take a big bite out of adverse events in American hospitals. The program – which aims to decrease preventable harm in U.S. hospitals by 40 percent and preventable readmissions by 20 percent by 2013 – marks a watershed moment in the patient safety movement. Here’s the scoop, along with a bit of back story (which includes a gratifying bit part for yours truly).

Last July, I attended the ABIM Foundation’s Summer Forum in Vancouver. This confab has turned into medicine’s version of Davos, drawing a who’s who in healthcare policy. One of the attendees was an old friend, Peter Lee, a San Francisco lawyer and healthcare consumer advocate who had just been asked to lead a new Office of Delivery System Reform within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Peter’s charge was to figure out how to transform the delivery of healthcare in America, challenging under any circumstances but Sisyphean given that he’d be pushing the rock up a mountain chock full of landmines comprised of endless legal and political threats to the recently-passed Affordable Care Act.

Fueled by the enthusiasm of being a new guy with a crucial task, Peter took advantage of some conference downtime to convene a small group – about 20 of us – to advise him on what he should focus on in his new role. After soliciting ideas from many of the participants around the table, he turned to me. I decided not to be shy.

I suggested that the topic of patient safety remained compelling and scary, and that it might be at a tipping point – with new success stories in reducing infections and improving surgical safety, more hospitals possessing the infrastructure to improve safety, and increasing penetration of IT systems due to federal support through the meaningful use standards. I also knew that Don Berwick, Peter’s new boss, would not be content to move around some bureaucratic chess pieces, or even a few hundred million dollars. Instead, he’d be looking to do Something Big – an initiative aimed at capturing hearts and minds, a federal version of his IHI 100,000 Lives and 5 Million Lives campaigns. What better target than patient safety?

Peter was avidly jotting down notes, and so I continued. While you’re at it, I said, modernize Medicare’s calcified Conditions of Participation, syncing them with our modern understanding of safety. Ask whether the network of agencies designed to support CMS’s agenda at the local and regional level, the Quality Improvement Organizations (QIOs), was sufficiently nimble and innovative; my fear was that some of the QIOs had settled into a complacency borne of decades of steady federal funding. Make sure you’re using a mix of carrots and sticks to engage providers and systems, build in a strong measurement strategy so we know what we’ve accomplished at the end, and don’t forget to tap into caregivers’ professionalism and to support skill building. Finally, highlight a couple of compelling and challenging areas – perhaps hand hygiene and overhauling the hospital discharge process – as targets for improvement.

Peter thanked me and the group, and I didn’t hear from him again for a while. He called me a couple of months ago, bubbling with excitement. “When you were talking in Vancouver, I was listening,” he said. “We’re going to come out soon with something called the ‘National Patient Safety Initiative,’ but I prefer to think of it as the ‘Bob Wachter Patient Safety Initiative.’” Needless to say, I was both flattered and speechless, and looked forward to seeing what this was about.

The initiative, its name morphed (undoubtedly after a focus group or two) into the Partnership for Patients, is described here, and this morning’s event announcing it is posted here. Some of the key elements of the program are:

  • For the first time, it establishes safety goals and programs as a private/public partnership, with early buy in from large insurers and employers. A broad tableau of leaders from provider organizations, insurers, federal agencies, businesses, and patient groups shared the stage with Sebelius and Berwick at this morning’s announcement to highlight the partnership theme.
  • It provides large amounts of funding and technical assistance – nearly one billion dollars – both through the new CMS Innovation Center and elsewhere, to promote new knowledge and skill building.
  • Like the 100K Lives Campaign, it seeks commitments from hospital executives and boards to tackle key safety goals.
  • It provides support for collaborative networks designed to promote shared learning.
  • It rewards hospitals for achieving certain milestones with both recognition and additional resources; those that do very well will be eligible to receive funding to help other hospitals improve.

It’s important to note that while the Partnership highlights a variety of programs – value-based purchasing, readmission incentives, hospital-acquired infections, and others – that, by 2015, will tie up to 9 percent of hospitals’ payments to their performance on certain quality and safety goals, all of these payment changes are in the ACA. As Joe McCannon, Berwick’s special assistant at CMS (and the man who played the David Plouffe role for the IHI campaigns), emphasized in a call with me and several safety leaders yesterday, the Partnership is about skill building; it’s the carrot accompanying the ACA’s collection of sticks. (“We want everyone to succeed,” Joe said on the call.)

With increased skin in the game on performance, the government will soon launch a program of detailed chart reviews (mirroring the strategy used in the Office of Inspector General recent report on patient safety) to identify national trends in preventable harm, and to audit numbers supplied by individual hospitals. Hospitals reporting unusually low rates of harm may be find themselves audited to prove that they are not gaming or fibbing.

What is the point of all this work? The Partnership for Patients has set its aim on a 40 percent reduction in preventable harm and a 20 percent reduction in preventable readmissions. It would be worth reading my last blog – yes, the wonky one on harm vs. preventable harm – to appreciate the subtleties here, including the challenges the administration will have to overcome to accurately identify preventable harm.

But despite these challenges, I see the decision to target preventable harm as an important advance in the government’s thinking about patient safety, measurement, and incentives. Under Medicare’s “no pay for errors” policy, for example, a hospital might have its payments cut for every injurious fall, decubitus ulcer, or deep venous thrombosis after surgery, even if they did everything right and despite the fact that virtually no studies show than more than half of these harms can be prevented, even with perfect care. This is deeply unfair.

By setting the goal as a fraction of “preventable harm” reduced (initially focused on nine conditions, including adverse drug events, healthcare-associated infections, and pressure ulcers), the feds have changed the game. As I understand it, let’s say that the literature tells us that one-in-four serious patient falls can be prevented with perfect care. If the national rate of falls is 5 falls per 1000 hospitalized patients (0.5 percent), the goal would then be to cut the rate to 0.45 percent (a 40 percent reduction of the published preventability fraction of 25 percent, adding up to a reduction by 10 percent). (Sorry, I should have warned you that there’d be math.) This strikes me as a nice balance between ambitious and realistic, and a clear advance from prior policies that assumed total preventability in the absence of evidence that this was achievable. Score one point for fairness; good for them.

The devil will be in the details, but there is a lot to like in this initiative: a national spotlight on the issues of patient safety, an ambitious but achievable improvement goal, an effort to harmonize measures across various stakeholders, a focus on skill building and learning networks, a broad-based partnership, and significant resources both to do the work and to create incentives for improvement. I’m proud to have had a tiny role in its creation.

Let’s hope this isn’t one of Don Berwick’s last acts as head of CMS (the initiative, which has Don’s fingerprints all over it, is yet another reason to lobby for his Senate confirmation as permanent chief). But if it is, his too-brief tenure will still have paid off.


  1. Brad April 13, 2011 at 12:02 am - Reply

    If you make a 2×2 table, and on y-axis, $ PENALTIES–YES or NO, and on x-axis, KNOW THE PfP PLEDGE or HAVE TAKEN IT–YES or NO, I would invite you to fill in the squares. You can guess the answers.

    I am all for this effort (as I am crushed about DB), but I would bet less than 5% of docs have heard of IHI 100K lives, and this campaign, as much as its branded now–necessary and needs a face, is more about rewards and penalties and will be a below the radar in 6 months, at least the moniker.

    When I had heard about SHMs involvement, I went to CMS page to bone up a bit more re: the initiative. Looks all feel good, but essentially, its an apple pie pledge, with commitments to disseminate grants and track data. All things that would have happened eventually without branding to a greater or lesser extent.(assuming the funding does not get choked off–which these days you never know). The good guys, the good systems are going to play ball no matter what, and the others, well, the the sticks and carrots route is the salve.

    For me, I am not getting what is different here given this roll out. The last feel good pledge I remember was the WH Summit in 2009 when AMA, AHA, etc., vowed to cut cost curve by 1.5%. Did that hold btw?

    Just try and give me a better sense of what is different with this initiative, as I am sure I am missing the crux. Berwick et al have preached this to those who have wanted to listen for some time, not news; for those who are tone deaf–not sure if it will be enough of a wake up call unless it hits them in the wallet, as stated above.


  2. Brian Clay, MD April 13, 2011 at 2:50 am - Reply

    Bob —

    First, you’re probably better off not having it named the “Bob Wachter Patient Safety Initative.” 🙂

    Second, I find myself torn between the two goals of the initiative: a push to significantly reduce preventable harm inside the hospital is more than welcome, and something that those of us in hospital medicine will be willing to take on.

    However, to propose achieving a 20 percent reduction in readmissions in just a few years seems like a brass ring well out of reach. Brian Jack achieved a 30 percent reduction in readmissions with (grant-funded) Project RED, so it theoretically is doable; however, that was an incredibly resource-intensive project that completely overhauled a hospital’s discharge process. If that’s what it takes, then I echo Brad’s concern about the rollout and publicizing of this initiative to hospital leaders who are reluctant to invest in such overhauls.

    That said, it is a welcome change to set as the goal a reduction in preventable in-hospital events, rather than all events of these types. I look forward to the discussions that this proposal is certain to stimulate.

  3. Menoalittle April 14, 2011 at 3:43 am - Reply


    It has been thought by many, especially the President and his appointees, including Secretary Sibelius, that CPOE and EHRs were THE safety solution. Now, at least another billion $ is being packaged for delivery. Why?

    Your statement “…more hospitals possessing the infrastructure to improve safety, and increasing penetration of IT systems…” is not supported by the facts. One example is the literature cited in the press release of this HIT adjunct boondoggle here_
    published in Health Affairs, April 2011, reporting “10 times greater than previously believed” errors in the three hospitals studied.

    These three hospitals already had safety programs “built around electronic health record systems”.

    Is this new program designed to protect the patients from the errors facilitated by CPOE devices (errors that were documented and referenced by Koppel et al in JAMA 2005)?

    Best regards,


  4. RamonMW April 15, 2011 at 9:26 am - Reply

    Thanks for information, interesting to read, looking for more:)

  5. Al Green, MD April 17, 2011 at 12:49 pm - Reply

    Patient falls are increasing, directly proportional to the duration that nurses and other staff sit with faces glued to the computer terminals. oblivious to the patients’ needs.

    What is best for patient care and safety is to spend money on human resources and training rather than computers wit business directed platforms with jury-rigged software that gives the false sense that medical care is safer.

  6. wrs May 6, 2011 at 8:30 pm - Reply

    •It provides large amounts of funding and technical assistance – nearly one billion dollars – both through the new CMS Innovation Center and elsewhere, to promote new knowledge and skill building

    A billion dollars? Large amounts of funding and technical assistance?

    That comes out to be around $3.25 for every man, woman and child in the US for one year. Don’t know about you, but 26 ounces of gas isn’t gonna get anyone very far.

    I’m just saying…

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About the Author:

Robert M. Wachter, MD is Professor and Interim Chairman of the Department of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, where he holds the Lynne and Marc Benioff Endowed Chair in Hospital Medicine. He is also Chief of the Division of Hospital Medicine. He has published 250 articles and 6 books in the fields of quality, safety, and health policy. He coined the term hospitalist” in a 1996 New England Journal of Medicine article and is past-president of the Society of Hospital Medicine. He is generally considered the academic leader of the hospitalist movement, the fastest growing specialty in the history of modern medicine. He is also a national leader in the fields of patient safety and healthcare quality. He is editor of AHRQ WebM&M, a case-based patient safety journal on the Web, and AHRQ Patient Safety Network, the leading federal patient safety portal. Together, the sites receive nearly one million unique visits each year. He received one of the 2004 John M. Eisenberg Awards, the nation’s top honor in patient safety and quality. He has been selected as one of the 50 most influential physician-executives in the U.S. by Modern Healthcare magazine for the past eight years, the only academic physician to achieve this distinction; in 2015 he was #1 on the list. He is a former chair of the American Board of Internal Medicine, and has served on the healthcare advisory boards of several companies, including Google. His 2015 book, The Digital Doctor: Hope, Hype, and Harm at the Dawn of Medicine’s Computer Age, was a New York Times science bestseller.


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