Saturday, 10 March 2012

Attitudes to error in healthcare: when will we learn?

In a recent pair of radio programmes, James Reason discusses the possibility of a change in attitude in the UK National Health Service regarding human error and patient safety. The first programme focuses on experiences in the US, where some hospitals have shifted their approach towards open disclosure, being very open about incidents with the affected patients and their families. It shouldn't really be a surprise that this has reduced litigation and the size of payouts, as families feel more listened to and recognise that their bad experience has at least had some good outcome in terms of learning, to reduce the likelihood of such an error happening again.

The second programme focuses more on the UK National Health Service, on the "duty of candour" and "mandatory disclosure", and the idea of an open relationship between healthcare professional and patients. It discusses the fact that the traditional secrecy and cover-ups lead to "secondary trauma", in which patients' families suffer from the silence and the frustration of not being able to get to the truth. There is of course also a negative effect on doctors and nurses who suffer the guilt of harming someone who had put their trust in them. It wasn't mentioned in the programme, but the suicide of Kim Hiatt is a case in point.

A shift in attitude requires a huge cultural shift. There is local learning (e.g. by an individual clinician or a clinical team) that probably takes effect even without disclosure, provided that there is a chance to reflect on the incident. But to have a broader impact, the learning needs to be disseminated more widely. This should lead to changes in practice, and also to changes in the design of technology and protocols for delivering clinical care. This requires incident reporting mechanisms that are open, thorough and clear. Rather than focusing on who is "responsible" (with a subtext that that individual is to blame), or on how to "manage" an incident (e.g. in terms of how it gets reported by the media), we will only make real progress on patient safety by emphasising learning. Reports of incidents that lay blame (e.g. the report on an unfortunate incident in which a baby received an overdose) will hardly encourage greater disclosure: if you fear blame then the natural reaction is to clam up. Conversely, though, if you clam up then that tends to encourage others to blame: it becomes a vicious cycle.

As I've argued in a recent CS4FN article, we need a changed attitude to reporting incidents that recognises the value of reporting for learning. We also need incident reporting mechanisms that are open and effective: that contain enough detail to facilitate learning (without compromising patient or clinician confidentiality), and that are available to view and to search, so that others can learn from every unfortunate error. It's not true that every cloud has a silver lining, but if learning is effective then it can be the silver lining in the cloud of each unfortunate incident.

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