Highlands-Cashiers Hospital Team Members Work to Build a Culture of Safety through Clinical Protocols and Human Connection

Tom Neal

Tom Neal

By Tom Neal, RN, MBA, MHA

Patient safety is a term you hear constantly in the healthcare industry, and though the two words are simple and easy to understand, the efforts to ensure that patients are kept safe are complex and all-encompassing.

At Highlands-Cashiers Hospital [1] (HCH) and the Eckerd Living Center [2] (ELC), we look at patient safety through many lenses. There is the measurable data we gather every day, about everything from hospital-acquired infections — something we’re vigilant about preventing — and the need for readmission, to more subjective factors like how safe our patients and residents feel during their time in our care.

Because our patients and residents are the reasons we’re here, I think you would be impressed with the level of dedication, patient focus and professionalism that all of our team members exhibit, whether they’re providing direct clinical care, or working in one of the support departments like admissions, Environmental Services department, or Food and Nutrition Services.  Environmental Services is an unsung hero in our mission to keep our patients safe, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.  They assure the facility is clean and disinfected and our team is excellent. No matter what department you work in here, your No. 1 goal is creating a facility that supports healing and recovery, and anticipating and mitigating potential risks.

Something I realize the longer I work in healthcare is that no one ends up doing this work by accident. Talk to virtually any healthcare provider and you hear a similar story about gaining personal and professional fulfillment from caring for patients. It’s their passion, it brings them joy, and it gives them purpose, and I feel that this heartfelt intention that’s nearly universally present in those who choose this work is a great driver in the patient-centered focus of HCH.

As a health system and hospital, we also pursue patient safety by taking a proactive approach, and I can’t emphasize enough how important the ability to track a patient’s progress and manage it is. For example, our patients’ electronic health records guide our care in many ways, and another safety step is the brief daily huddle that our clinicians engage in. These meetings serve to bring everyone up to speed on our patients, discuss goals for the day, and be fully informed about the potential for problems so we’re ready to handle them.

Aside from clear communication, it’s essential for our staff to be “on the same page” about patients’ needs, issues that might be happening within the building, like if a piece of medical technology equipment is inaccessible and getting repaired, and if anything unusual is happening that day at the hospital, such as a visit from a credentialing entity or a safety drill. Even though not every one of these issues is strictly clinical, they all serve to impact how our caregivers do their work and the better prepared they are for the shift ahead, the safer our patients will be.

Other hospital-wide initiatives that put patient safety at the forefront are our vigilance about preventing infection through numerous preventive strategies. During COVID-19, this involved steps I have previously shared, such as ensuring that our staff is properly outfitted with personal protective equipment (PPE) at all times — whether it’s within the context of COVID-19 or not — and continuously reviewing what the safest protocol for admitting visitors to the hospital should be. There are many other steps and similar such as protocols for preventing blood stream and central line infections, preventing falls or simply assuring people don’t get food on their meal tray that they are allergic to. We are constantly looking for ways to keep our patients and residents safe while they are under our care.

Patient safety is not just attained through clinical methods, either. A safer patient experience also results from meaningful and sensitive interactions between our staff members and our patients and their families. Although warmth and human connection seem like givens when we think about excellent care, it’s important to extend that to patient safety as well. Simply taking the necessary time with our patients and families to explain a procedure or give care instructions following a procedure is a critical part of patient safety.

Hospital caregivers also engage in Root Cause Analysis training, where we concentrate on either a hypothetical or actual opportunity for improvement and, as a team, creatively look at the challenge from every angle. The intention is to reduce all types of safety risks, whether it’s lowering the likelihood of a patient fall, putting a safeguard in place that ensures that we are treating the correct patient, and many more. If we ask you for your name and date of birth, it is simply a procedural step we take to make sure we are accurate to avoid giving someone the wrong medication or wrong procedure.

The HCH team is dedicated to providing the safest experience for every patient, from the moment they are admitted, to their day of discharge. A significant part of quality care is focusing in on preventing risk by collaborating to deliver that care efficiently, promptly and sensitively. The safety of our buildings, the mindfulness of our team members, and the systems they follow and technology they use all go into making HCH a facility you can trust.

I would also like to take this opportunity to introduce the new, highly accomplished and skilled orthopedic surgeon we’ve recently welcomed to Mission Orthopedic Surgery – Franklin and Highlands, Dr. Gregory Crawley. After many successful years practicing in the suburbs north of Atlanta, he has now joined us to provide personalized care to our community members. Dr. Crawley has obtained surgical privileges at both Angel Medical Center [3] in Franklin, and right here at HCH.

As many of you may know, I have been volunteering to lead the Highlands Cashiers Plateau Vaccine Initiative to support the local health departments in vaccinating the residents of the Plateau for COVID-19. This is such a critical issue in all our lives right now — and tightly interwoven with patient safety of course — that I plan on devoting my column to it next month.

Our goal is for every HCH patient to be given the most advanced, safest care from the moment they are admitted right through to their day of discharge. For our ELC residents, our goal is to do the same for the duration of their time living here. Building a safety-oriented culture is built into all we do.

Highlands-Cashiers Hospital aerial view


Tom Neal, RN, MBA, MHA, is the Chief Executive Officer and Chief Nursing Officer (CNO) of Highlands-Cashiers Hospital.

Highlands-Cashiers Hospital, [1] a member of Mission Health, an operating division of HCA Healthcare, is a community hospital serving Macon, Jackson and the surrounding counties. Located on Highway 64 between the towns of Highlands and Cashiers, the hospital offers 24/7 emergency care, acute inpatient care, rehabilitation, as well as long-term care through Eckerd Living Center. Highlands-Cashiers Hospital has 24 beds for acute care services and 80 beds in the Eckerd Living Center. Ambulatory services are also available, including therapy services and primary care practices serving both Highlands and Cashiers.