Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Patty Skolnik: In Her Own Words

In the weeks leading up to and during  the National Patient Safety Foundation Congress 2013 May 8-10, I'll be guest-blogging for the NPSF Congress website and cross-posting here. (this post should be on their site as early as tomorrow). I'm excited to be profiling patient safety champions and programs, using their own words to acquaint the broader community with their stories, efforts and successes. There are so many of you out there doing great work; I'd love to know all of you better, and I know the world would be as inspired by your work as I am! Once the Congress is over, I hope to continue with these profiles on this blog. Please share as you see fit to help connect the patient safety universe.

Who: Patty Skolnik
Executive Director, Citizens for Patient Safety, Denver, CO
Member, board of Governors, NPSF since May 2012
Twitter: @SkolnikPatty

Pat: What brought you to patient safety in the first place?
Patty: The death of our only child, Michael, in June 2004. Michael was 22 years old and was going to college when he passed out one day. A neurosurgeon looking at test results of Michael’s brain, said a cyst was blocking his cerebral fluid and causing his brain to swell to life-threatening levels. He told us Michael needed surgery within 48 hours.

I checked out the profile of the neurosurgeon on the website of the Colorado Board of Medical Examiners. Nothing unusual came up. What I didn’t have any clue about was that this neurosurgeon was being sued for the death of another patient in Atlanta and had operated on the wrong disc. He had also operated on and disabled another patient in Atlanta.

After my husband David and I had left the hospital for the night, the neurosurgeon got a signature from Michael—who was on heavy medication-- on a consent form to do brain surgery. When we got back to the hospital the next morning, Michael was already in the operating room. The procedure was supposed to take three hours. Michael was wheeled out six and a half hours later.

They didn’t find any cyst. But we soon saw that six hours rooting around in our son’s brain had caused tremendous damage. Michael lost the ability to walk, speak, eat, became partially blind. He was paralyzed except for spastic movement of his right arm and hand. Over months in the ICU he suffered from hallucinations, blood clots and many infections. It was absolute torture for him. Our son died of massive organ failure, 32 months after the surgery. We were devastated. But we had vowed to Michael, who’d been going to nursing school before this all began and had loved the field, that we would leave health care better off than we found it. So we started Citizens for Patient Safety, and I now teach and present to groups around the world. I’m trying to bring that mission to life every day.

Can you share an iconic moment of impact, success or motivation?
Patty: The realization that patients and families like ours had no meaningful access to important information about their doctors made us set out to change the law. We wanted physicians’ malpractice history to be available in a quick online search.

We had to bring some reluctant groups on board…the Colorado Medical Society, the state’s largest malpractice underwriter, and on both sides of the political aisle. But I met with them, said “I’m a mom, could you please watch a short video about our son” (it was a segment from the Today Show). Everyone eventually came on board. We had to do it, to create a resource every family might need one day.

The governor signed The Michael Skolnik Medical Transparency Act in 2007. David and I then lobbied for two subsequent patient safety bills that also passed. Another one is pending. Today I do advocacy training around the world.

Pat: What is the most encouraging thing that’s happened in the past year in patient safety?
Patty: For me, shared decision-making and informed consent are the foundation of patient safety. Patients need to be part of the team, the team that has to live with the outcome. I had been doing consumer training, and still do that. But in the past year the door to the provider world is opening up wider to patient advocates. More and more I’m working hand in hand with medical professionals, even participating in grand rounds in hospitals. In August of last year I presented to the board of the New York State Association of Hospital Trustees, nearly 500 decision-makers in health care. The key to having an impact is in how we as patient advocate leaders present ourselves. Not to “shame and blame” and point a finger, but rather by asking what the problems are, and how we can resolve them together.

Pat: What’s the most concerning thing about patient safety in the past year?
Patty: That people will lose hope. There is so much to do. But as Winston Churchill said, “Never, never, never give up”. We had that quote posted next to Michael’s bed. Progress in patient safety is coming slowly, but we have to keep going. The other thing I worry about is that we veterans who have been working in patient advocacy have a lot of wisdom and experience. We’ve learned how to “play in the sand box” with others. But we have to mentor younger people, to teach them all we’ve learned…to pass the torch to the next generation, so the improvement movement keeps going.

Pat: What unique skill will you bring to the NPSF 2013 Congress?
Patty: I’m a networker. I put the right people together. Sometimes they may seem like strange bedfellows, but there are common passions and complementary skills or capabilities. I’ve been able to do this several times. I think we all have to look for and assist others who can further our mission.

Pat: Where would you like to see more energy focused?
Patty: I’d like to see more patient and family representation at conferences that are talking about patient safety. Many advocates who would like to attend don’t have the employer support or financial resources to participate. So I’m hoping there will be ways to work on this. 

Parts of this profile are excerpted from my forthcoming book, Design To Survive: 9 Ways an IKEA Approach Can Fix Health Care & Save Lives.

NOTE: Patty Skolnik is also among a handful of patient safety advocates (including Helen Haskell, Rosemary Gibson and others) whose collaboration with Medstar Health is being featured in the forthcoming documentary film: Breaking the Wall of Silence. Film production funds were just successfully raised on Kickstarter.

Know a patient safety/engagement "Island of Excellence"  that deserves recognition? Please suggest in comments.


  1. Great interview, Patty you are the best.

  2. Replies
    1. Hi Patty my name is Michelle Massey and I am friends with Georjean who is very good at what she does and I was wondering if you could help me with getting my story out better using media and starting a company to give back to medical malpractice victims and families that get destroyed by tort laws!

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