Monday, August 10, 2015

The positive deviance idea

From Better by Atul Gawande.
A few years ago, Paul O'Neill, the former secretary of the Treasury and CEO of the aluminum giant Alcoa, agreed to take over as head of a regional health care initiative in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. And he made solving the problem of hospital infections one of his top priorities. To show it could be solved, he arranged for a young industrial engineer named Peter Perreiah to be put on a single forty-bed surgical unit at a Pittsburgh veterans hospital. When he met with the unit's staff, a doctor who worked on the project told me, "Peter didn't ask, 'Why don't you wash your hands?' He asked, 'Why can't you?'" By far the most common answer was time. So, as an engineer, he went about fixing the things that burned up the staff's time. He came up with a just-in-time supply system that kept not only gowns and gloves at the bedside but also gauze and tape and other things the staff needed, so they didn't have to go back and forth out of the room to search for them. Rather than make everyone clean their stethoscopes, notorious carriers of infection, between patients, he arranged for each patient room to have a designated stethoscope on the wall. He helped make dozens of simplifying changes that reduced both the opportunities for spread of infection and the difficulties of staying clean. He made each hospital room work more like an operating room, in other words. He also arranged for a nasal culture to be taken from every patient upon admission, whether the patient seemed infected or not. That way the staff knew which patients carried resistant bacteria and could preemptively use more stringent precautions for them--"search-and-destroy" the strategy is sometimes called. Infection rates for MRSA--the hospital contagion responsible for more deaths than any other--fell almost 90 percent, from four to six infections per month to about that many in an entire year.

Two years later, however, despite encouragement and exhortation, the ideas had spread to only one other unit in the hospital. Those other units didn't have Perreiah. And when he left the original unit for a different project elsewhere, performance on that unit began to slide, too. O'Neill quit the project in frustration. Nothing fundamental had changed.

The belief that something could change did not die, however. Jon Lloyd, a surgeon who had helped Perreiah on the project, continued to puzzle over what to do, and he happened across an article about a Save the Children program to reduce malnutrition in Vietnam. The story seemed to Lloyd to have a lesson for Pittsburgh. The antistarvation program, run by Tufts University nutritionist Jerry Sternin and his wife, Monique, had given up on bringing outside solutions to villages with malnourished children. Over and over, that strategy had failed. Although the know-how to reduce malnutritionwas long established--methods to raise more nourishing foods and more effectively feed hungry children--most people proved reluctant to change such fundamental matters as what they fed their children and when just because outsiders said so. The Sternins therefore focused on finding solutions from insiders. They asked small groups of poor villagers to identify who among them had the best-nourished children--who among them had demonstrated what the Sternins termed a "positive deviance" from the norm. The villagers then visited those mothers at home to see exactly what they were doing.

Just that was revolutionary. The villagers discovered that there were well-nourished children among them, despite the poverty, and that those children's mothers were breaking with the locally accepted wisdom in all sorts of ways--feeding their children even when they had diarrhea, for example; giving them several small feedings each day rather than one or two big ones; adding sweet potato greens to the children's rice despite its being considered a low-class food. And the ideas began to spread. They took hold. The program measured the results and posted them in the villages for all to see. In two years, malnutrition dropped 65 to 85 percent in every village the Sternins had been to.

Lloyd was bitten by the positive deviance idea--the idea of building on capabilities people already had rather than telling them how they had to change. By March 2005, he and Perreiah persuaded the veterans hospital leadership in Pittsburgh to try the positive deviance approach with hospital infections. Lloyd even convinced the Sternins to join in. Together they held a series of thirty-minute, small group discussions with health care workers at every level: food service workers, janitors, nurses, doctors, patients themselves. The team began each meeting saying, in essence, "We're here because of the hospital infection problem and we want to know what you know about how to solve it." There were no directives, no charts with what the experts thought should be done. "If we had any dogma going in," Jerry Sternin says, "it was: Thou shalt not try to fix anything."

Ideas came pouring out. People told of places where hand-gel dispensers were missing, ways to keep gowns and gloves from running out of supply, nurses who always seemed able to wash their hands and even taught patients to wash their hands, too. Many people said it was the first time anyone had ever asked them what to do. The norms began to shift. When forty new hand-gel dispensers arrived, staff members took charge of putting them up in the right places. Nurses who would never speak up when a doctor failed to wash his or her hands began to do so after learning of other nurses who did. Eight therapists who thought wearing gloves with patients was silly were persuaded by two of their colleagues that it was no big deal. The ideas were not terribly new. "After the eighth group, we began to hear the same things over and over," Sternin says. "But we kept going even if it was group number thirty-three for us, because it was the first time those people had been heard, the first time they had a chance to innovate for themselves."

The team made sure to publicize the ideas and the small victories on the hospital Web site and in newsletters. The team also carried out detailed surveillance--taking nasal cultures from every hospital patient upon admission and upon discharge. They posted the monthly results unit by unit. One year into the experiment--and after years without widespread progress--the entire hospital saw its MRSA wound infection rates drop to zero.

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