Improving Patient Safety by Taking Systems Seriously

Patient safety has been a priority in health care since Hippocrates admonished physicians to "first do no harm." Even so, the Institute of Medicine found in 2000 that approximately 98 000 patients die from preventable medical errors each year. Recent US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates project that 270 individuals die each day from hospital-acquired infections. Despite substantial efforts and investments, widespread and substantial improvement is not evident.

The problem is not in knowing what to do. Techniques, tools, and some best practices are available, and many health care organizations are making efforts to apply them. The importance of creating a "culture of safety" has also been noted. This involves continuous vigilance or mindfulness, learning, and accountability. A greater emphasis on safety over productivity and on teamwork over individual autonomy, increased standardization and simplification, and the implementation of an environment in which personnel are encouraged and feel comfortable to report errors and mistakes are needed.

Although creating a culture of safety is important, creating a culture of systems is a more fundamental challenge. In this Commentary, the term systems means systems of care that occur both within and across organizations. For example, in studies involving causes of adverse events in cardiac surgery, more than two-thirds were classified as nontechnical or systems-oriented issues including delays and missing equipment, and more of these problems occurred in cases with adverse outcomes than in successful cases. The greatest barrier to patient safety and safety culture is the inherent fragmentation of the US system of care. Safety will improve when the underlying system of care improves.