Lessons for the oil and gas industry from hospitals--disclosing errors

I recently visited southwestern Pennsylvania to meet families living with natural gas drilling and learn about their experiences. I saw brown drinking water at one home and met a farmer who reports that 70 of his cows died after drinking some fluid that leaked from a loose valve on a wellpad on his property.

I also visited with one family whose life is now what they consider to be hell. Within one-third of a mile of what used to be their dream home there is one wellpad, a large pit, a compressor station, and a cryogenic gas processing plant (three different companies are involved). Their kids got so sick with burning eyes, burning throats, headaches, dizziness and bloody noses that they can no longer play outside when the wind is blowing from the industrial facilities toward the house. Their pediatrician has advised the family to move away for their health of their children.

Of course, just up and moving is not always easy for people if they can’t sell their home.  One family in the Barnett Shale area of Texas tells me that the property they bought for $250,000 (their dream home and 10 acres for their family and their horses) and in which they then invested an additional $50,000 in improvements was just appraised at $78,000--if anyone would buy it. These families are not compensated for the damages to their home or their health, which is why they find themselves with no choice but to sue--if they can find a lawyer to take their case. It’s not easy finding a lawyer to go up against oil and gas companies, some of which are multi-billion dollar corporations.

Back to the Pennsylvania family I mentioned above. I  had previously met someone who works for one of the companies operating near their home, so I called and asked if the company could look into the possibility of controlling the air emissions near this home and installing a sound barrier to reduce the noise. I was told that because the family had filed a lawsuit, communications can only take place via legal counsel. What a shame. If the company would build a soundwall, install air emissions control equipment, and adopt some safer practices, which they probably do in other locations, we might then have healthy kids, a happier family, no lawyers, no lawsuit, less reduction in property value, and possibly the same ultimate outcome in less time.

I recently read a fascinating article that I highly recommend. The article discusses how seven leading medical institutions are “seeking to turn the tide of medical errors…..” I think it holds important lessons that can be applied to the oil and gas industry. These hospitals are confronting their fears, openly admitting their mistakes and the details to their stakeholders, investigating the causes, and using what they learn to improve their processes and their systems so these errors do not recur. They have found the results to be improvements in their bottom line, quality of care, and patient as well as staff satisfaction. This approach appears to be a true win-win solution.

I welcome oil and gas companies to a conversation about how these concepts might be applied to their industry. Here are some of the interesting conclusions of the paper that I think are relevant to oil and gas operations:

  • Errors are not usually the fault of a single person, but more often have more to do with flawed systems. Fixing flaws in the system is the only way to prevent the same errors from happening over and over again.
  • The University of Illinois Medical Center changed its medical error disclosure process so that it begins when an error is discovered and does not end until “the organization has assured itself that the likelihood of it occurring again is nil.” The process includes an apology with full disclosure if there is a clear error. Patient safety has improved, as has employee morale. 
  • The University of Michigan Health System decided that it could save money if it admitted errors and compensated patients--saving court costs and attorneys’ fees. If they think they are in the right, they still take the time to explain their analysis to the patient and family. They have experienced a decline in malpractice suits (although other factors are also in play). The reduction in claims has exceeded all expectations. 
  • At Virginia Mason Medical Center, every staff member is considered a safety inspector, from the housekeeping staff on up, and has the authority to “stop the line” if they are concerned about a patient safety issue.  A scrub nurse in an operating room can even stop a surgeon. Before any safety alert can be closed out, the staff must demonstrate that they have done what they can to ensure that the error does not happen again.
  • Kaiser Permanente has established a health care ombudsman/mediator who is a neutral and confidential liaison between patients, families, and the health care system.
  • Three other hospitals report reductions in claims and payments (although the new disclosure processes may not be the only cause).

The article also discusses a Pennsylvania law, the Medical Care Availability and Reduction of Error (MCARE) Act, that mandates that a person who has sustained injury or death as a result of medical negligence by a health care provider must be afforded a prompt determination and fair compensation and that every effort must be made to reduce and eliminate medical errors by identifying problems and implementing solutions that promote patient safety. Sounds like a promising model.