To Err Is Human by Maureen Stevenson

‘To Err Is Human’, to cover it up or fail to learn unforgiveable

It is now nearly 20 years since the Institute of Medicines (IOM) seminal work ‘To Err is Human: Building a Safer Health System’, raised our collective conscience about the scale of harm in healthcare and that the majority of factors that give rise to error are systemic in nature.

maureen-1As we take our first tentative steps into 2017 and begin to think about how we might improve our work, work off those excess pounds and gain a new level of fitness and wellbeing (or maybe that’s just me!) it is important to reflect what has been achieved and what we will take forward into 2017:

  • A new Hospital
  • Integration of Health and Social Care
  • Development of a local Quality Improvement Hub

Whilst these might be strategic in nature there are many equally worthy service, team and individual achievements to be proud of, each one of them contributing to the wellbeing of many thousands of people, families and communities.

On a personal note I was very humbled to be able to accompany my Mum to an Alzheimer’s Scotland Christmas Tea Dance. In my head I had so many other callings on my time and attention, I rushed from a meeting straight into ‘the hokey cokey’ to truly learn ‘what it’s all about’ – people, compassion, caring and having fun. Wouldn’t it be lovely to retain that special feeling all year and to remember why we do the work that we do?

My blog today is about Human Factors. Human Factors (Ergonomics) i.e. the study of human activity (inside and outside of work). Its purpose as a scientific discipline is to enhance wellbeing and performance of individuals and organisations. The key principles are the interactions between you and your environment both inside and outside of work and the tools and technologies you use.

In my role as Patient Safety and Improvement Manager I have the great privilege of supporting individuals and teams to develop the capability to improve the quality, the safety and effectiveness of care. However, I also oversee our adverse event and learning systems which all too often highlight the failings in our systems and in our interactions with those sometimes very complex systems. Human Factors and ergonomics offers an opportunity for us to understand the interactions of humans working within often imperfect and messy systems. People who most of the time make the correct choices and decisions in difficult situations with incomplete information to help keep patients safe.

New thinking suggests that we should look at the actions and decisions that help keep patients safe and not only those that result in harm. If we were to support teams to understand the thinking and the behaviours that keep people safe we might enable a more resilient workforce able to vary their response to challenging situations.

Often the design inputs and processes related to the workplace fail to adequately take account of human abilities and characteristics, making it inevitable that failures will happen (and happen again). We know that many patient safety incidents across all health and social care sectors are directly related to a lack of attention to Human Factors issues such as the design of everyday work tasks, processes & procedures; equipment and technologies, organisation of work and working environments.

We would all agree that safe care delivered to a high standard is what we look for in a health and social care setting, and most of the time we achieve just that. Tremendous gains have been made in eliminating infections from our Intensive Care Units by standardising work practices and improving team communication. Improvements in Medicines Reconciliation have been seen across Primary and Secondary Care and work is currently underway to reduce pressure ulcers across our care system but how can we simultaneously improve efficiency and effectiveness and care that is delivered in a way that considers the needs of the recipient and the caregiver. Might a review of Human Factors help?

Human Factors (Ergonomics) can contribute to achieving this as it involves learning about our characteristics as humans (e.g. our physical size or strength, how we think and how we remember things), and using that understanding to improve our well-being and performance through the type of work we do, the tools and equipment we procure to do it and who we do it with.

The environment, the culture, our communication processes and leadership impact on system performance as they impact on how people perform. Understanding how improvements in one part of our system might be spread elsewhere will require careful attention to all of these factors.

To achieve a culture that is just and fair we have to take account of Human Factors, we need to understand what safe, effective person centred care looks like and be able to replicate the conditions that enable it to survive and thrive.

I’d like everyone’s Mum to experience the joy of care, apparently effortlessly given that accounted for her health, her care and her emotional needs. I’d like to extend a huge thank you to all the health and care staff and volunteers who together make that possible in very difficult circumstances.

My ambition for the year ahead is for us to become more proactive in our pursuit of safety , to understand what we might learn from when things work well and how that might impact on how we support individuals and teams to learn and continually improve. Safety II as this shift is being referred to will require a shift in our thinking and in how we behave. The table below highlights how we might begin that shift from Safety I to Safety II.

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As humans we bring our whole self to work, so let us use all of our resources and resourcefulness to enhance the safety and the experience of care. Nothing is more satisfying than bringing joy to those you work with whether they be your co workers or the patients and their families you care for.

Maureen Stevenson is the Patient Safety & Improvement Manager at NHS D&G

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One thought on “To Err Is Human by Maureen Stevenson

  1. Missed this last week – I really like the idea of focussing safety on getting as many things as possible right, it’s a much more positive way of thinking

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