March 3, 2005 • Volume 13 Number12

Senior Lect. Vincent O'Reilly (CSOM)

Quality of His Leadership

O'Reilly honored for steering Dana-Farber through tough times

By Reid Oslin
Staff Writer

For the past 25 years, Senior Lect. Vincent O'Reilly (CSOM) has contributed his professional expertise in business operations and a demonstrated commitment to ethics and patient safety in his role as a member of the board of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

O'Reilly's commitment, especially through some unsettling times at the institute, was honored recently as he received the New England Health Care Assembly's 2004 Trustee Leadership Award. The award salutes his "transparency, openness, dedication and honesty to assure patient safety at the Dana-Farber."

O'Reilly was chairman of the board at Dana-Farber - one of the nation's leading cancer research and care centers - in 1994 when two DFCI cancer patients received chemotherapy overdoses; one of them, Boston Globe medical reporter Betsy Lehman, died, while the other suffered irreversible heart damage.

Dana-Farber colleagues say O'Reilly insisted on open and forthright communications and expansive investigations that explored not only the patient deaths, but also systemic issues related to overall patient safety.

"Vin O'Reilly has been the model of the outstanding trustee and steward of his organization," said DFCI President Edward J. Benz Jr., MD, in nominating O'Reilly for the award. "His leadership during our most challenging times transformed Dana-Farber and made it better.

"He has made us special by his insistence on openness, accountability and constant contact with those in our care," Benz added.

Dana-Farber's chief operating officer, Jim Conway, readily concurs. "Throughout DCFI's 10-year patient safety journey, the engagement and leadership of our board of trustees and specifically Vin O'Reilly couldn't have been stronger," Conway said. "We hoped not only to acknowledge him for this exceptional contribution in this and so many other areas, but also to highlight for others an example of outstanding board practice and accountability in quality and patient safety."

A Boston Globe article last fall said that, 10 years after Lehman's death, "Dana-Farber has emerged as one of the most safety-conscious hospitals in America, with computers that trigger alarms at potential overdoses, a hypervigilant error-reporting system, and a top executive who pushes measures in pursuit of the old physician's promise to 'first do no harm.'

"Once a symbol of medicine's dark side, Dana-Farber's experience is now used in instructional brochures and videos."

In accepting the NEHA Award, O'Reilly said, "I'm just a proxy for a whole bunch of people. I am just part of a much larger contingent of physicians, nurses, pharmacists, trustees and administrative people who have focused on this issue. In accepting the award, I did it in their name, not in mine.

"I was just the most visible of the people involved."

Interviewed recently, O'Reilly described the patient deaths as a signal that the organization needed to take a closer look at its core values and goal-achievement methods. "Dana-Farber is an organization that is at the forefront of medicine and the forefront of research as well. It's a very proud organization and we were shaken to the core with these overdoses.

"We decided that part of it was due to the 'arrogance of excellence' and part of it was the normalization of deviance," he said. "You always had the idea that 'Controls are for other people; we don't need it because we are the best.' We had to deal with that.

"As an institution, and as a board, we decided that to the greatest extent possible, this whole situation needed visibility. So we were as frank and as open as possible with this situation, respecting - as we had to - patient privacy."

O'Reilly says he helped to convince the board to confront the issue head-on rather than just seek a redefinition of the problem.

"We did it through the primary mechanism of a committee," he said. "The senior patient care and research physicians, nurses and administrators, trustees and the president of the institution come to each of our meetings and we talk about these things. It is confronted and discussed."

O'Reilly currently chairs Dana-Farber's Joint Committee on Quality Improvement and Risk Management and serves as vice chairman of the institute's board.

O'Reilly, who has taught accounting at the Carroll School of Management since 1997, is a former partner and chief operating officer at Coopers & Lybrand in Boston. He joined the Dana-Farber board in 1980 and was chairman from 1986 until 1995.

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