The Safety Blog

The Safety Blog serves to highlight patient safety news, stories, and initiatives aimed at upholding our mission: safe care for every patient, every time, everywhere.



by Emily Wittenhagen

Organization: WSMA
Project Name/ Title: Honoring Choices Pacific Northwest
Point of Contact: Jessica Martinson,

I was happy recently to sit down for a talk with Jessica Martinson, ‎the Director of Clinical Education and Professional Development at the Washington State Medical Association, known to many in our state as WSMA (pronounced wizma).

WSMA represents over 10,000 physicians, resident physicians, medical students and physician-assistants throughout Washington State, the only professional organization in the state that represents the interests and priorities of all physicians, regardless of specialty or practice type. WSMA’s mission is to provide strong physician leadership and advocacy to shape the future of medicine and advance quality care in Washington State.

Jessica has worked since 2014 on the Honoring Choices® Pacific Northwest initiative. Co-sponsored by WSMA and the Washington State Hospital Association, this collaborative effort between physicians and hospitals will ensure that health care providers are prepared to discuss and honor patients’ end-of-life wishes. Honoring Choices PNW is one of the biggest rollouts of an advanced care planning program in the country and works in partnership with Respecting Choices, an internationally recognized evidence-based model of advance care planning (ACP). The first cohort on the project is made up of 32 teams from 23 healthcare organizations, representing every major healthcare system in the state, as well as rural and critical access hospitals and medical groups.

To begin with, the Honoring Choices PNW team is focused on First Steps® conversations with healthy adults. While advance care planning is not the “biggest fire burning” for adults when they are happily enjoying good health, this is precisely the right time to get the conversation going.

Instead, the reality is that many people don’t think to have these conversations until it’s too late, if they have them at all. Sometimes the conversations happen after a serious diagnosis. But all too often we see the worst-case scenario: a person has a medical emergency and they cannot speak for themselves, leaving their families to guess what kind of care their loved one may want.

“To address that,” Jessica says, “we have to move the conversation upstream.” As the saying goes, “It’s always too early until it’s too late.” A key strategy is to have healthy adults think about a sudden illness or accident that leaves them unable to communicate. Even the most invincible person can relate to that type of scenario. The aim is to demonstrate the importance of having these conversations long before people think they need to have them.

Advance care planning is not yet fully integrated into routine care.

Jessica’s team is engaged in an intensive initiative to get advance care planning integrated into routine care. The first step was to ensure leadership engagement. Although the need was clear, the team was surprised by the overwhelming demand to join the first cohort. Once the leaders signed on, front-line staff were eager to get to work designing and implementing their customized advance care planning programs to ensure the conversations were part of routine, patient-centered care. The strong mix of both top-down and bottom-up leadership is a key ingredient for success.

“The thing I like the most about this program is that it takes a systems-based and team-based approach to integrating advance care planning into routine care. It should be as routine as taking someone’s blood pressure or making a referral.”

Implementing a strong ACP program means changing workflows, training staff and changing EMRs. Jessica has high praise for the over 200 front-line staff who are doing the nitty gritty work of putting this work into practice. “They deserve all the credit,” she says. “It’s hard, disruptive work. It takes persistence and patience. They’re doing an incredible job.”

Physicians don’t have time to have lengthy conversations with each one of their patients about their values, goals, and preferences related to end-of-life care.
The ACP program relies on a team-based approach, supporting physicians by certifying ACP facilitators to have in-depth conversations in their stead. The role of the physician is to motivate their patients to have a conversation and then refer them to a facilitator. Following the conversation, a summary of the key decisions and a list of clinical questions go back to the physician for follow up if needed.


“It’s always too early until it’s too late.”



  • Employing “A Small Test of Change”
    Honoring Choices PNW has the care teams start small – an approach called the “small test of change” – and begin by having one or two doctors in a clinic integrate advance care planning into their routine care. The team can more easily assess what works and what needs changing, establish best practices and work flows, and then spread it to other clinic staff. In addition, organizations choose new sites to disseminate the work in a step-wise approach until everyone in the organization has adopted the practice.
  • Leadership Engagement
    The Honoring Choices PNW team engaged with the WSMA & WSHA Medical Officer Collaborative, made up of Chief Medical Officers (CMOs), Vice Presidents of Medical Affairs (VPMAs), Chiefs of Staff, and senior-most physicians. These leaders are enthusiastic to make the advance care planning initiative one of their calls to action, supporting it for regional adoption, and prioritizing it within their organizations.A bonus of the collaborative is its built-in accountability. The group meets three times a year to report on the progress of their work, how it’s being implemented, and any barriers they are struggling against. Jessica credits these meetings with helping develop a sense of ownership for the work and says they are one of the biggest contributors to the initiative’s success, emphasizing one of their main philosophies: “The front line cannot be successful if they do not have leadership support.”

Most commonly, patients are invited during the annual wellness visit by the physician who uses some key phrases designed to spark the conversation. For instance, a patient might be asked if they’ve identified a person (e.g. a durable power of attorney; typically a family member or loved one) to speak for them should they ever be in a position in which they can’t speak for themselves. It only takes a couple of minutes for the physician to make the invitation. Following this, if the patient is motivated to participate in further discussion, they are referred to a facilitator.

Advance care planning facilitators undergo a formal certification process in which they are taught to guide patients in thinking about their values, goals, and preferences for end-of-life care. One-on-one consultations typically take an hour, and the presence of the health care agent is encouraged as the “gold standard.” Facilitators follow a guide or roadmap to lead the patient through key questions: who should be your health care agent, what gives your life meaning and what type of medical treatment would you want if you had a sudden event that left you unable to communicate. The focus of the conversation is on exploring acceptable vs. unacceptable outcomes rather than answering ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to whether they would want specific medical interventions.

The Honoring Choices PNW team set several goals for organizations to meet. Three main goals stand out: 25% of conversations have a healthcare agent present, 95% of conversations are documented by a facilitator in the Electronic Medical Record (EMR), and patients rate the conversation as 4 out of 5 or higher. Organizations are well on their way to reaching and exceeding all three of these goals.

Measure (as of 1/31/2017)  


All Teams


% of conversations that include health care agent 25% 68%
% of conversations documented by Facilitator in EMR 95% 87%
Individuals who rate their satisfaction in conversation as 4 or higher on a 5-point satisfaction survey 4+/5 4.9


Ultimately, organizations will be able to show that their patients receive care at the end of their lives that match their goals, values and preferences.

The effectiveness of:

  • Open team collaboration: Teams from a variety of organizations participate in group consultations and share in real time the barriers they face and how they are overcoming them.
  • Regular data reporting: Teams report monthly on 13 measures. One of the benefits is that a team struggling in one area can benefit from hearing solutions from another team or organization that is having success in that area.
  • Positive peer pressure: Sharing data transparently puts positive pressure on everyone to excel. Jessica says this has made a major impact on the initiative’s success and was made possible because so many organizations are participating at once.


  • “Great facilitated service. Everyone should have this planned or recorded with their medical record.”
  • “This session was invaluable for me.  She took some very complex topics and helped me really understand them.”
  • “It was so helpful to hear myself say my wishes out loud.”
  • “She made it very comfortable to talk about decisions that may be difficult.”
  • “Great job of listening and then restating what she heard. She was able to ask probing questions to get deeper insight.”
  • “Thank you for your patience with my tears.  It was unexpected and you made me feel normal and safe.”
  • “The facilitator was the perfect person to ask these hard questions about end of life. She was warm, comforting and very easy to talk with. Very happy I came today.”

Source: The Vancouver Clinic

Jessica’s biggest suggestion would be to start with strong leadership engagement, a clear understanding of expectations, and commitment from front-line clinicians and staff.

A beautiful “side effect” of this work is that employees find it to be incredibly fulfilling and that it adds to their job satisfaction. Imagine a Medical Assistant who gets to deepen her relationship with a patient by talking about something so intimate in a safe space. Many physicians credit discussing end-of-life care with their patients with reminding them why they went into medicine in the first place. Some even describe it as a “burnout buster.”

It turns out, having what many imagine to be a difficult conversation can be quite fulfilling, for both patients and staff – a win-win that seems well worth the effort.

This post was written by Emily Wittenhagen, Program Assistant, WPSC, with collaboration from Jessica Martinson and Graham Short of WSMA.



by David Allison, CPHRM, System Patient Safety Director, PeaceHealth

As those who work in them know well, running a rural healthcare facility can pose unique challenges. Transitions of care such as helicopter transfers and pathways to access are of extra importance, with long distances and waterways separating patients from treatment centers. Critical access hospitals, ambulatory settings, and outpatient clinics in remote regions must think critically about how to meet complex patient population needs often while facing provider shortages and competition from large urban facilities. PeaceHealth has the distinct challenge of running not one, but a whole system of facilities in rural communities spread across the Pacific Northwest, from the small historic town of Cottage Grove, OR, all the way to the shores of Ketchikan, AK. David Allison, CPHRM, PeaceHealth’s Director of System Patient Safety, shares some of the work he and his team have been implementing to address these unique rural needs.

About PeaceHealth: A Truly Regional Health System

PeaceHealth includes 10 hospitals in Washington, Alaska, and Oregon – 6 of them being critical access hospitals. Also included in the system are 60+ ambulatory clinics with 800+ physicians and allied health providers.

Patient Safety is a department within the Quality Division, led by a physician Patient Safety Officer and a Patient Safety Director; my role. Hospitals and the Medical Group are served by Chief Medical/Patient Safety Officers, or other Medical Staff Leaders, and Patient Safety Consultants.

Tailoring Patient Safety Structures That Work for Your Setting

In the PeaceHealth System, we have been focused on building functional patient safety structures in our critical access hospitals and in the medical group. In doing this, we have found that a patient safety program and structure based on the function and resources of large, acute care hospitals does not serve the needs of critical access hospitals and ambulatory clinics – as many of us know, these programs are not one size fits all.

To address this, PeaceHealth patient safety leaders have met with leaders from all our critical access hospitals, and with medical group leaders, to assess whether the needs and proposed structures were in harmony. The feedback we received from these leaders is what has enabled us to adapt and improve on these structures, ultimately making them more functional. For example, our critical access hospitals do not have Chief Medical Officers. We agreed to ask the Chief of Staff or other medical leader to participate.


“…these programs are not one size fits all.”


We also heard from our critical access hospitals that their patient safety teams were overlapping with the quality management committee. To address this, we structured the process to match the resources. The quality management committees now approve corrective action plans from root cause analyses and address barriers to their implementation, making a separate committee and meeting unneeded. The critical access patient safety team schedules vary based on need, from monthly to weekly to an as-needed basis. We also add meetings as events dictate.

To keep the ball rolling in structural improvements, a monthly system-wide Serious Safety Event Review meeting was also established. Administrative, Medicine and Nursing Chiefs all participate, along with system support such as Risk Management, Quality, Organizational Integrity, Performance Improvement, and Clinical Education. This ongoing meeting includes membership from our critical access hospitals and medical group clinics, as well as the larger acute care hospitals, offering us the chance of sharing the outcomes of root cause analyses in critical access hospitals and medical group clinics, identifying similar risks across the system and spreading action plans to reduce the risk of similar events.

Through this valuable process, patient safety was identified as a core value of our organization. This has led to roles and responsibilities for patient safety being clarified. Patient safety is to lead efforts to reduce and prevent harm. Quality leads in performance in the best outcome being achieved. a patient safety plan being documented, and relevant metrics being identified and reported. Some metrics, such as the rate of serious harm, are common across settings. Others are specific to the setting. For example, metrics for the medical group include enrollment in an electronic portal, and management of InBasket messages.


“Adapting Patient Safety function and structure to meet the resources and needs of critical access hospitals and ambulatory clinics is vital to success.”



What were the primary outcomes or impact of this work?

  • A Medical Group Patient Safety Team was formed, with members including the Medical Group Patient Safety Officer and Network Quality Committee Chairs, as well as leaders from Risk Management, Quality, and Patient Safety divisions. The team triages events for potential review by Root Cause Analysis or other processes, assesses harm levels, reviews action plans, and supports the spread of Action Plans across the Medical Group. Events and action plans are shared in the System Serious Safety Event Review.
  • Patient Safety Teams were also formed in all Critical Access Hospitals. Members include the Chief Administrative Officer, Director of Nursing, Quality Manager, Risk Manager, Medical Staff representative, and Patient Safety leaders. Teams triage events for review, review and approve Action Plans, and monitor their completion. Events and Action Plans are shared in the System Serious Safety Event Review. Since the inception of the System Serious Safety Event Review in November 2015, 12 Medical Group Action Plans have been reviewed and spread. Eleven Action Plans from Critical Access Hospitals have been similarly shared and spread.

What were the largest “lessons learned” in this effort?

A number of specific lessons learned from Root Cause Analyses have been spread. We are working to hard wire the use of briefs, times out, and debriefs in ambulatory settings as well as in surgery. This requires identifying best practice for the clinic setting, and adapting to fit the workflow in dermatology or imaging, for example. In addition, the structure has allowed addressing events in transitions of care. Standardization and more robust education are underway for clinic triage, and systems are being developed for tracking discharged patients on critical medications. Improvements are also underway in the process for referral from primary to specialty care. Sharing lessons learned from Serious Safety Events has increased levels of transparency, and collaboration. We expected when we began our monthly event reviews that communities might be hesitant to share their stories, but we are pleasantly surprised to have found that there is a collective sense that working together we can better improve safe patient care.

What were the reactions of patients, families, and/or staff effected by the work?

Patient/Family advisors participate on Root Cause Analysis teams. Their feedback has included the importance of following through on Action Plans and spreading lessons learned from events. It is a goal to add a Patient/Family Advisor to the monthly System Serious Safety Event Review meeting. Participants in the monthly call, including Chief Administrators, Chief Medical Officers, Chief Nursing Officers, Quality Leaders, Risk Management Leaders and Patient Safety Leaders have expressed encouragement and support.

If another organization took on a similar project, what would be your biggest suggestion?

Adapting Patient Safety function and structure to meet the resources and needs of critical access hospitals and ambulatory clinics is vital to success. We have collaborated with our critical access and medical group leaders to match patient safety function to the structures they have in place. It looks different than the structures in our acute care hospitals, but still accomplishes the triage and investigation of events, approval and tracking of action plans, and supporting the spread of these across our system.

About the Author

David Allison has served as the PeaceHealth System Patient Safety Director since November 2014, working closely with their System Patient Safety Officer. He has been with PeaceHealth for 28 years in a variety of roles, including Risk Management and managing the Inpatient Psychiatric Unit in Eugene, OR.