For about 15 minutes, a patient's family member feared the worst — that her loved one had died during trauma surgery. A technical glitch caused the tracking screen in the emergency department's waiting area to automatically reset at midnight, wiping out confidential indicators of the patient's status.

"We didn't know that was happening, and who knows how many patients and families were having a similar experience," says Amy Vanderscheuren, director of volunteer services and patient- and family-centered care at Essentia Health, Duluth, Minn. "We were able to take that feedback and make an immediate change."

This helpful information came from a participant in one of the health system's 19 patient and family advisory councils consisting of nearly 300 members. Hospitals have been forming these community-based councils to drive change for patient safety through education, collaboration and consumer engagement.

"Patients and families are eager to play a role in making health care safer. More hospitals are working to leverage that interest by establishing patient and family advisory councils," says Jeff Brady, M.D., an associate director at the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, which published a guide to help hospitals develop effective councils.

In assembling a council, hospitals should select a diverse group of participants who have good listening skills and can articulate negative and positive experiences with inpatient and ambulatory services. "You want to ensure that you have a cadre of patient and family advisers that represents the population you serve," says Joanna Kaufman, R.N., an information specialist at the Institute for Patient- and Family-Centered Care in Bethesda, Md., which advises hospitals in council creation and progress.

Participants typically receive an orientation in confidentiality and HIPAA requirements, and they meet with a variety of hospital staff members. Many councils convene monthly, with participants often serving two-year terms and half of the members changing annually, Kaufman says.

While there isn't a direct way to measure a council's value, experts say there are clues to indicate that they're working, including the number of active advisers, an increase in hospital market share, a decrease in professional liability and, most commonly, the results from quality reports and patient satisfaction scores.

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