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Culture Change Is at Core of Patient-Safety Improvements

Armen Hareyan's picture

Health Care Management

A new study of innovative patient-safety programs found an overriding "culture of safety" that transcends the six different initiatives analyzed.

"Almost everyone that gets into this business comes to believe that a culture of safety is a critical factor in changing organizational performance regarding the safety of patients," said study co-author and health-policy expert David Blumenthal, M.D.

The analysis offers health-system managers insight into the triumphs and challenges of colleagues who have tested initiatives to promote patient safety. It appears in the current issue of Milbank Quarterly, which tracks trends in health-care policy.

Co-author Douglas McCarthy is president of Issues Research, an independent policy research firm based in Durango, Colo. Blumenthal is director of the Institute for Health Policy at Massachusetts General Hospital.

In 2000, the Institute of Medicine released the report, "To Err Is Human: Building a Safer Health System," which found "a substantial body of evidence points to medical errors as a leading cause of death and injury." The report recommended the creation of safety systems in health care organizations.

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The Milbank study authors use a definition of safety culture originated by human-error guru James Reason. The hallmarks of a culture of safety include a climate where "people are prepared to report their errors and near-misses" and a just atmosphere where there is clear line between "acceptable and unacceptable behavior." An environment that promotes safety is a flexible culture that emphasizes teamwork.

Outside of health care, Reason's safety-culture framework is also used in other high-stakes industries like aviation and nuclear power.

Moving toward a safety culture often requires both revamped clinical practices and "social engineering," the authors discovered through their analysis and interviews with patient-safety leaders at the six sites.

The patient-safety innovations included an in-hospital rapid response team at one site, while another health system tested operating-room checklists and simulated crisis events on maternity wards. A Virginia hospital instituted four new strategies, among them a set of safety behavior expectations and high-priority "red rules" to remind employees of the possible harm of not following certain safety procedures.

When a new intervention encountered resistance, McCarthy said, it was often kept on track by refocusing the staff's attention on the effectiveness of the practice and patient welfare.

"Physicians and nurses, all caregivers, are motivated to do what's best for the patient," he said. "If they can see that changing the way that they work will accomplish that, they will