A Walk on the Wild Side of Health Care

Every Patient Counts. It’s the mantra of health care professionals throughout South Carolina, including at least one dedicated group of professionals whose patients are real animals. On March 15, 2011, health care professionals from across South Carolina toured the Columbia Riverbanks Zoo and Garden as one of the pre-conference workshops for the 4th Annual South Carolina Patient Safety Symposium. Attendees discovered that the procedures and tactics for dealing with illness, injuries and other emergencies among the zoo’s population are often surprisingly similar to those in the hospitals and clinics where they work. 

Just as doctors, nurses and other staff in a “human” hospital have individual specialties and responsibilities, so do team members at the zoo. Each of the 195 employees at Riverbanks Zoo and Garden must learn the zoo’s policies and know his or her duty in any situation.   

The first stop on the tour gave attendees a look at how zoo employees are trained to respond to a “Code E” – a Dangerous Animal Escape. Zoo policy requires all employees to know exactly what to do in the event of an escape. They drill at least once a year to ensure everyone is prepared, similar to our emergency preparedness drills, except with fangs and claws.

Next, the groups explored the veterinary hospital at the zoo where they learned that   detailed, accurate medical records are just as important in keeping animals healthy as they are to human patients.  One of the veterinarians leading the tour put it in familiar terms: every animal counts. Just as we make every effort to file and maintain accurate medical records for our human patients when they enter the hospital, the zoo’s veterinarian office gathers and updates medical data for each animal in their care.  

At the zoo, the records are stored on an electronic system and, because these “patients” can’t talk and don’t carry driver’s licenses or ID cards, each animal has an implanted microchip to eliminate the possibility of mistaken identity. All certified zoos must keep consistent electronic records so when animals are transferred from one zoo to another, there is nothing lost in translation with the records. What a good hand off! 

Participants found yet another parallel between their world and the zoo during a close-up demonstration of the interaction between elephants and their trainers. Just as nurses in a hospital are dedicated, day-to-day caregivers for their patients, never more than a few steps away, the trainers at Riverbanks Zoo care for their animals on an intimate, one-on-one basis. When medical needs arise, the veterinarian steps in, still relying on the trainers, “the nursing staff,” to prep the patient for surgery or other procedures, provide reassurance and comfort and lend skilled assistance in all situations.  

All in all, the Riverbanks Zoo and Garden tour was more than a unique opportunity to go behind the scenes of one of the South’s top zoos. It was an important reminder that we can re-focus our own professional performance by examining best practices at work in what, on the surface, seems like a whole different world. Attendees were able to witness how this unique industry continuously pursues quality improvement, and identifies processes outside of health care that can be applied to the health care setting.

After all, human or otherwise, every patient counts.

05-18-2011 09:56 (EDT)