Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Safety II Lessons for Healthcare

Rod of Asclepius  Source: Wikipedia
We recently saw a journal article* about the incidence of preventable patient harm in medical care settings.  The rate of occurrence of harm is shocking, at least to someone new to the topic.  We wondered if healthcare providers and researchers being constrained by Safety I thinking could be part of the problem.  Below we provide a summary of the article, followed by our perspective on how Safety II thinking and practices might add value.

Incidence of preventable patient harm

The meta-analysis reviewed 70 studies and over 300,000 patients.  The overall incidence of patient harm (e.g., injury, suffering, disability or death) was 12% and half of that was deemed preventable.**  In other words, “Around one in 20 patients are exposed to preventable harm in medical care.”  12% of the preventable patient harm was severe or led to death.  25% of the preventable incidents were related to drugs and 24% to other treatments.  The authors did not observe any change in the preventable harm rate over the 19 years of data they reviewed.

Possible interventions

In fairness, the article’s focus was on calculating the incidence of preventable harm, not on identifying or fixing specific problems.  However, the authors do make several observations about possible ways to reduce the incidence rate.  The article had 11 authors so we assume these observations are not just one person’s to-do list but rather represent the collective thoughts of the author group.

The authors note “Key sources of preventable patient harm could include the actions of healthcare professionals (errors of omission or commission), healthcare system failures, or involve a combination of errors made by individuals, system failures, and patient characteristics.”  They believe occurrences could be avoided “by reasonable adaptation to a process, or adherence to guidelines, . . .” 

The authors suggest “A combination of individual-level measures (eg, educational interventions for practitioners), system-level*** measures (eg, human-centred design of healthcare tasks and work environments), and organisational-level measures (eg, introducing quality monitoring and improvement processes) are likely to be a promising strategy for mitigating preventable patient harm, . . .”

Our Perspective

Let’s get one thing out of the way: no other industry on the planet would be allowed to operate if it unnecessarily harmed people at the rate presented in this article.  As a global society, we accept, or at least tolerate, a surprising incidence of preventable harm to the people the healthcare system is supposed to be trying to serve.

We see a direct connection between this article and our Oct. 29, 2018 post where we reviewed Sydney Dekker’s analysis of patient harm in a health care facility.  Dekker’s report also highlighted the differences between the traditional Safety I approach to safety management and the more current Safety II approach.

As we stated in that post, in Safety I the root cause of imperfect results is the individual and constant efforts are necessary (e.g., training, monitoring, leadership, discipline) to create and maintain the individual’s compliance with work as designed.  In addition, the design of the work is subject to constant refinement (or “continuous improvement”).  In the preventable harm article, the authors’ observations look a lot like Safety I to us, with their emphasis on getting the individual to conform with work as designed, e.g, educational interventions (i.e., training), adherence to guidelines and quality monitoring, and improved design (i.e., specification) of healthcare tasks.

In contrast, in Safety II normal system functioning leads to mostly good and occasionally bad results.  The focus of Safety II interventions should be on activities that increase individual capacity to affect system performance and/or increase system robustness, i.e., error tolerance and an increased chance of recovery when errors inevitably occur.  When Dekker’s team reviewed cases with harm vs. cases with good outcomes, they observed that the good outcome cases “had more positive characteristics, including diversity of professional opinion and the possibility to voice dissent, keeping the discussion on risk alive and not taking past success as a guarantee for safety, deference to proven expertise, widely held authority to say “stop,” and pride of workmanship.”  We don’t see any evidence of this approach in the subject article.

Could Safety II thinking reduce the incidence of preventable harm in healthcare?  Possibly.  But what’s clear is that doing more of the same thing (more training, task specification and monitoring) has not improved the preventable harm rate over 19 years.  Maybe it’s time to think about the problems using a different mental model.


In a subsequent interview,**** the lead author of the study said “providers and health-care systems need to “train and empower patients to be active partners” in their own care.”  This is a significant change in the model of the health care system, from the patient being the client of the system to an active component.  Such empowerment is especially important where the patient’s individual characteristics may make him/her more susceptible to harm.  The author’s advice to patients is tantamount to admitting that current approaches to diagnosing and treating patients are producing sub-standard results. 

*  M. Panagioti, K. Khan, R.N. Keers,  A. Abuzour, D. Phipps, E. Kontopantelis et al. “Prevalence, severity, and nature of preventable patient harm across medical care settings: systematic review and meta-analysis,” BMJ 2019; 366:l4185.  Retrieved July 30, 2019.

**  The goal for patient harm is not zero.  The authors accept that “some harms cannot be avoided in clinical practice.”

***  When the authors say “system” they are not referring to the term as we use it in Safetymatters, i.e., a complex collection of components, feedback loops and environmental interactions.  The authors appear to limit the “system” to the immediate context in which healthcare is provided.  They do offer a hint of a larger system when they comment about the “need to gain better insight about the systemic and cultural circumstances under which preventable patient harm occurs”.

****  M. Jagannathan, “In a review of 337,000 patient cases, this was the No. 1 most common preventable medical error,” MarketWatch (July 28, 2019).  Retrieved July 30, 2019.  This article included a list of specific steps patients can take to be more active, informed, and effective partners in obtaining health care.

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