Penn Medicine Experts Urge Expansion of Federal Incentives to Improve Patient Care Quality and Safety

PHILADELPHIA — National attempts to help prevent clinical “never events” – a group of complications of hospital care that are often preventable – should focus not only on reducing these specific events, but should also focus on improving infrastructures within health care institutions necessary to support quality improvement and patient safety more broadly, say two experts from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

In an invited commentary published online by JAMA Internal Medicine, Patrick J. Brennan, MD, chief medical officer of the University of Pennsylvania Health System, and Craig A. Umscheid, MD, MSCE, director of Penn’s Center for Evidence-based Practice, recommend that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services shift its use of financial incentives from an exclusive focus on preventing specific clinical outcomes toward encouraging the creation of hospital-wide structures that promote evidence-based action for averting a variety of avoidable harmful events.

In 2008, Medicare implemented the Hospital-Acquired Conditions Initiative, a policy denying incremental payment for eight complications of hospital care, also known as “never events.” Another study published in JAMA Internal Medicine led by Teresa Waters, PhD, of the University of the Tennessee Health Science Center, found that after the new federal policy was introduced, central line-associated bloodstream infections fell by 11 percent and catheter-associated urinary tract infections fell by ten percent. But there was no significant reduction in hospital-acquired pressure ulcers and serious inpatient falls.

The study authors suggested that the difference in the policy’s effects on infections as compared to falls and pressure ulcers were the result of the evidence available at the time to guide hospitals to improve these outcomes. 

But the Penn authors disagreed.  Instead, they suggested that the difference in the policy’s effect had more to do with the challenge of improving complex quality outcomes such as pressure ulcers and inpatient falls, when compared to the easier-to-improve outcome of infections.

“Incentives are indeed important,” says Brennan. “But they must be the right incentives. There was good-quality evidence available to underpin fall and pressure ulcer prevention efforts when the CMS initiative was launched. Yet neither of these measures has significantly improved. This may be because it’s simply not possible to reduce falls and pressure ulcers by taking a few clear-cut steps, as in the case of reducing infections. Instead, broader and more comprehensive structural changes within hospitals should be considered. Such efforts would reduce an even larger number of never events than by simply tackling them one at a time.”

Hospitals should aim to bridge what’s called the “knowing-doing gap,” Umscheid says. “That’s the disconnect between what we know works based on the best available evidence and what we actually practice. To bridge the gap, we are not advocating abandoning incentives that focus on individual clinical outcomes. Instead we are urging federal regulators to also encourage institution-wide structural changes. We believe these changes can create the necessary conditions for solving difficult problems such as falls and pressure ulcers — and others as well.”

The structural changes suggested by Brennan and Umscheid are the fabric of Penn Medicine’s successful quality improvement program. They include:

  • establishing unit-based leadership, where physicians, nurses, and quality administrators work together on their local wards or clinics to ensure that quality standards are met 
  • creating data stores that can provide evidence of which quality initiatives are effective
  • investing in staff education on evidence-based quality improvement, including in-house learning academies
  • opening local evidence-based practice centers, where experts can identify and adapt national evidence and best practices to address local problems identified by staff

“We believe that incentivizing these structures, in concert with more focused incentives on specific clinical outcomes, together offer the best chance of improving patient care quality and safety in a variety of situations,” says Brennan.


Penn Medicine is one of the world’s leading academic medical centers, dedicated to the related missions of medical education, biomedical research, and excellence in patient care. Penn Medicine consists of the Raymond and Ruth Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania (founded in 1765 as the nation’s first medical school) and the University of Pennsylvania Health System, which together form a $4.3 billion enterprise.

The Perelman School of Medicine has been ranked among the top five medical schools in the United States for the past 17 years, according to U.S. News & World Report‘s survey of research-oriented medical schools. The School is consistently among the nation’s top recipients of funding from the National Institutes of Health, with $392 million awarded in the 2013 fiscal year.

The University of Pennsylvania Health System’s patient care facilities include: The Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania — recognized as one of the nation’s top “Honor Roll” hospitals by U.S. News & World Report; Penn Presbyterian Medical Center; Chester County Hospital; Penn Wissahickon Hospice; and Pennsylvania Hospital — the nation’s first hospital, founded in 1751. Additional affiliated inpatient care facilities and services throughout the Philadelphia region include Chestnut Hill Hospital and Good Shepherd Penn Partners, a partnership between Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Network and Penn Medicine.

Penn Medicine is committed to improving lives and health through a variety of community-based programs and activities. In fiscal year 2013, Penn Medicine provided $814 million to benefit our community.