A portrait of patient safety leadership: Dr. Ronald Wyatt, Joint Commission's new Patient Safety Officer

In February, the Joint Commission named Ronald M. Wyatt, MD, as the organization's first-ever patient safety officer. The position reflects the Joint Commission's commitment to promoting safe and high-quality care with a goal of zero patient harm. Dr. Wyatt was chosen for the position based on his illustrious career in medicine and his expertise in the field of patient safety. Here, Dr. Wyatt shares his journey from small-town boy to the face of patient safety at the Joint Commission.

Choosing medicine as a path

Looking back on his life, Dr. Wyatt can recall several experiences that eventually drove his decision to pursue medicine.

Dr. Wyatt was raised in a small, rural town in Alabama, but he spent many of his summers growing up in Harrisburg, Pa., with his grandmother. She lived across the street from one of the town's general practitioners, and Dr. Wyatt would watch the residents of the town come and go from the physician's office. He was intrigued by what went on at the practice.

One summer, Dr. Wyatt developed an abscess on his shoulder, so he went across the street to the physician's office to have it treated. The physician lanced the abscess and showed Dr. Wyatt how to care for it so it would heal properly.

"I remember being this little black kid from Alabama and here is this older, gray-haired white man and he just took care of me," says Dr. Wyatt. "Not only did he see me, he made me feel better and he showed me how to take care of myself and I just thought that was such a great thing to be able to do — to take care of someone."

Although this first experience with medicine sticks out in Dr. Wyatt's memory now, at the time he didn't give it much thought. It wasn't until he was 15 years old that Dr. Wyatt gave medicine any more consideration as a future path.

As a teenager, Dr. Wyatt had a high school teacher who took a special interest in his academics and — given his impressive grades in science — suggested he consider becoming a physician. The teacher also encouraged Dr. Wyatt to attend a summer enrichment program in Oklahoma.

"Having grown up where and when I did, I had never met a back physician and the idea that that could be a possibility was foreign to me," says Dr. Wyatt. "I wasn't able to afford the program my teacher suggested because I was raised by a single mother, but she really planted a seed and made me think it could be possible."

The third experience that made a lasting impression on Dr. Wyatt occurred roughly one year later. There was a story in the local paper about a child who received sutures in his arm from a physician who, when he discovered the child's mother couldn't pay, proceeded to remove the sutures from the wound.

"I remember reading that the woman took her child to a veterinarian who put the sutures back in for free, but I was just so appalled by the physician's actions," says Dr. Wyatt. "I decided then that medicine should reflect my experience with the physician in Harrisburg — friendly and safe — and I wanted to help medicine be the way it ought to be."

Since then, Dr. Wyatt has worked tirelessly to become both a great physician and an advocate for patient safety.

Prioritizing patient safety in healthcare

Dr. Wyatt went on to attend college and then the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine, where he graduated in 1985. He credits the education he received at UAB for preparing him for a career in medicine.

After UAB, Dr. Wyatt was accepted into the internal medicine residency program at Saint Louis University. There, he became the school's first African-American chief resident. He later went on to practice medicine for roughly two decades in a variety of settings, including in community health centers and in private practice.

Dr. Wyatt got particularly interested in patient safety after he was invited to help conduct a site visit for a federally funded health center in a rough Chicago neighborhood. Dr. Wyatt's job was to perform a clinical effectiveness review by surveying clinicians and examining the clinical process. As part of the review, Dr. Wyatt also made it a point to speak to the health center's patients.

"I went across the street to sit at a bus stop and I would ask all the patients leaving the clinic, ''Why do you come to this site for care?' and the unifying answer was 'Because they take care of me'" says Dr. Wyatt. "That to me is the epitome of patient safety — trust. And that experience took me back to this idea of how healthcare is supposed to be."

After his first clinical effectiveness review, Dr. Wyatt began seeking out new ways to get involved in patient safety improvement efforts. He went on to conduct clinical effectiveness reviews at facilities across the country.

He also brought what he learned about patient safety from those reviews to the hospitals where he worked throughout his career.

"The hard part is you have to be involved in a lot of committees and you have to work your way up the chain of command, and get through all the politics, to get closer to working with the adverse events and the root cause analysis part of patient safety," says Dr. Wyatt.

Dr. Wyatt's patient safety experience includes a fellowship with the Institute for Healthcare Improvement and various patient safety-focused positions at the Defense Health Agency (formerly the Department of Defense military health system), the Food and Drug Administration Drug Safety Oversight Board and CMS' Center for Medicare & Medicaid Innovation Advisors program.

In 2012, he joined the Joint Commission and served as medical director in the Division of Healthcare Improvement, where he led numerous patient safety-related initiatives. For instance, Dr. Wyatt helped develop the organization's national patient safety goals, sentinel event alerts and quick safety publications. He also played a big part in transforming the former Office of Quality Monitoring into the Office of Quality and Patient Safety.

"The thing that attracted me to the Joint Commission was that fact that it has become more than an accreditation organization, it has evolved into a healthcare improvement company," says Dr. Wyatt. "And I have to say, I have not been disappointed in the least in my time with the Joint Commission — patient safety and quality improvement really is the priority."

The future of patient safety under Dr. Wyatt

Since being named patient safety officer of the Joint Commission, Dr. Wyatt shared with Becker's Infection Control & Clinical Quality some of the expectations and goals he has for his first year in the position.

Although he expects to run into some professionals in the industry who continue to view the Joint Commission as an accreditation agency, he is determined to help drive its transformation into a quality and patient safety organization, as well as externally change people's opinions about the Joint Commission. He plans to accomplish this goal through efforts involving education, collaboration, coaching and mentoring.

"I want to work with other organizations to help them keep patients and healthcare personnel safe, as well as to decrease harm and establish the fact that zero harm is not just an aspirational goal, it is achievable," says Dr. Wyatt.

Dr. Wyatt would also like to focus on an issue that is near and dear to his heart — improving access to high-quality healthcare for underserved populations.

"I've been working for years to elevate the importance of healthcare equity, and I will continue to do so as patient safety officer," says Dr. Wyatt. "To do that, I want to focus more attention on the social determinants of health."

Overall, Dr. Wyatt would love to see more healthcare organizations explore how they can reach out to individuals who experience inequalities due to their race, ethnicity, geographic location, sexual preference, socioeconomic status or disability, and improve their care experience and clinical outcomes.

"The good news is, there is a lot of energy right now focused on making healthcare more equitable," says Dr. Wyatt. "I'm encouraged to see that more and more organizations incorporating equity into their strategic priorities and I think it is, and will continue to be, a huge part of the patient safety movement."

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