Skip to main content

University of Utah Doctor Honored for Advancements in Patient Safety

They are patient safety cases forever etched in David Classen’s memory: A 24-year-old healthy woman with a urinary tract infection who was allergic to penicillin, but received an antibiotic related to the drug by mistake that ultimately killed her. A 31-year-old man who developed a skin infection on his elbow, who ended up dying from septic shock after his diagnosis wasn’t recognized during an initial emergency room visit.

David Classen

Deaths due to medical error are a health professional’s worst nightmare. But when Classen, M.D., witnessed those two cases as a resident in Connecticut in the early 1980s, he also found inspiration for a career dedicated to improving patient safety.
“The deaths of these patients were tragic, horrible and so obviously preventable. I have never forgotten them,” said Classen, now an associate professor of medicine and consultant of infectious diseases at the University of Utah School of Medicine. “They began my research interest in patient safety and medication safety in particular.”
His ambition led him to embark on a number of patient safety projects, starting years ago when as a faculty member studying and treating infectious diseases at the University of Utah, he focused on using electronic health records systems to detect and understand drug safety problems in hospital patients. Based on that work, he built programs within electronic health records systems to prevent and ameliorate drug safety problems in hospital patients, reducing such problems significantly. He further advanced his work and went on to build more complicated systems that helped improve the care and safety of care of patients in the intensive care unit. Today, his methods for integrating multiple hospital computer databases with pharmacy systems to signal impending adverse drug or other effects in patients are being  used by hundreds of different health care organizations
Classen has also worked with the Philadelphia-based Institute for Safe Medication Practices, a patient safety organization, to create a Computer Provider Order Entry Electronic Medical Record "flight simulator" for the Leapfrog Group and National Quality Forum (NQF) that has been used to evaluate critical safety performance capabilities  of operational EMR systems used by more than 500 hospitals in the U.S. The web-based tool allows hospitals to self-test their installed and implemented EMR system, and pick up on possible deficiences when it comes to patient safety.  

As a result of those accomplishments, the Institute for Safe Medication Practices this month announced that Classen is one of the winners in its 16th Annual Cheers Awards. The Cheers Awards honor people, organizations and companies that have set a standard of excellence for others to follow in the prevention of medication errors and adverse drug events. Classen will be honored at an awards ceremony in Dec.10 in Orlando with a “lifetime achievement” award.
“ISMP is one of the premier patient safety organizations in the world. They have made significant and sustainable contributions to patients’ safety for several decades. They have a great understanding of patient safety issues in the real world,” said Classen. “To be recognized by such an astute group of patient safety experts is a true honor.”
Classen will be honored with several other people at the awards dinner in Orlando. A complete list of award winners can be found at:
“From the prescription container label redesigns to the development of a process of integrating patient champions into safety rounds, the Cheers Awards have focused on best practices and programs that help save lives and improve quality of care. Awardees have gained national and international attention, bringing their innovations to the attention of those who can use and build upon them,” the ISMP states of those selected to receive its awards.
While Classen has already achieved much in the realm of patient safety, he plans to continue moving forward with advancing technology to improve patient safety. Right now, he is working on helping hospitals and health systems use their health information technology to build systems that can detect patient safety problems in real time — so that patients cared for by these hospitals and health systems can have safety problems prevented entirely  or mitigated  as they happen.
“If every hospital could have such systems our patients would experience much safer care,” said Classen.