That’s the word from Dr. Jim Bagian (pronounced BAY-zhin), director of the VA National Center for Patient Safety, headquartered at Domino’s Farms. Bagian is a streak of lightning disguised as a bureaucrat. In the past decade, the former astronaut has made the country’s veterans hospital system a global leader in preventing life-threatening medical oversights and errors.
Shortly after Bagian began work as the center’s first director in 1999, the Washington, D.C.–based Institute of Medicine published a report on patient safety in hospitals. Its shocking conclusion: “As many as 98,000 people die each year due to medical errors.” The estimate was based on the prevalence of everything from inadequate hand washing (which can spread serious, even life-threatening, infection) to rare instances of surgical procedures being performed on the wrong patient.
Bagian says he and his staff looked at the changes in medical protocols recommended by the study—but realized “we were already doing them.” They have since pressed far past the report’s recommendations to change the VA’s medical practice and culture. Under Bagian’s leadership, “the VA is probably ahead of almost all hospitals in the world [in patient] safety,” says Dr. Drew Gaffney, a fellow astronaut who now oversees patient safety at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Gaffney says that the protocols Bagian developed at the VA are being copied internationally.