By Hiroko Sato

MediaNews

GROTON -- Patricia McGaffigan still remembers the changing sound of an oxygen-level monitoring device attached to an infant patient while inside a hospital operating room as a nursing student more than 30 years ago.

The lower beeping tones meant the baby's heart was slowing down. That signaled to her something bad was happening to the baby. Resuscitation efforts can be fruitless by the time a patient has turned blue, but the medical team was able to revive the baby long before it reached that point, thanks to the machine, said McGaffigan, a registered nurse from Groton.

McGaffigan learned how advanced equipment can save patients that day. And after decades of devoting herself to promoting ways to keep more patients alive, McGaffigan now helps lead national efforts to reduce medical errors as the new interim president of the National Patient Safety Foundation.

The position is what the former director of critical care at Philips Healthcare of Andover calls her "absolute dream" job. That's because putting patient safety is easier said than done. The movement to make some fundamental changes in the health-care industry to better protect patients only picked up the momentum after the National Academy of Science issued a report called "To Err Is Human: Building a Safer Health System" in 1999, warning that as many as 98,000 patients were dying each year in hospitals due to medical errors that could have been prevented, according to McGaffigan.

"It was a turning point," McGaffigan said of the report's impact on the industry's awareness about the issue. "It reflected the fact that we didn't have a comprehensive strategy of any kind" to reduce such errors, she said. And she has made it her career goal to push forward the cause.

She said patient safety comes down to fostering a culture for it. Transparency and a nonpunitive environment is necessary to keep track of errors made and learn from them, McGaffigan said. NPSF also wants health-care workers to understand the importance of communicating with their patients "at their literacy levels" for good mutual understanding of treatments and procedures.

"We have shown that, when clinicians have good communications know how to work as a team, patients' outcome related to safety is improved," McGaffigan said.

All members of the industry, from hospital executives and board members to medical students to pharmacists, need to understand patient safety to bring about cultural changes, McGaffigan said.

McGaffigan, a Stoneham native, received a bachelor's degree from Boston College and a master's from Boston University, both in nursing. She has lived in Groton since 1999 with her husband, John McGaffigan, who is the funeral director of McGaffigan Funeral Home in Groton. They have two daughters and a son, ranging in age between 23 and 17.