A new public health crisis: Preventable harm in healthcare

Doctor and nurses wheeling patient in gurney through hospital corridor
The National Patient Safety Foundation called for greater collaboration and nationwide adoption of a public health framework to help guide efforts to prevent patient harm. Credit: Getty/Sam Edwards

Preventable harm in healthcare is now a public health crisis and requires a nationwide, coordinated response, said a leading patient safety organization.

Indeed, studies point to medical errors as a leading cause of death in the United States, and the National Patient Safety Foundation Monday issued a “call to action” (PDF) for a coordinated public health response to take steps to prevent avoidable errors.

“Too often, efforts to blame individuals and organizations for preventable harm diverts attention and resources away from a more effective and sustainable collective response,” the organization announced on Monday, the first day of patient safety awareness week.

The NPSF said greater collaboration and a nationwide adoption of a public health framework will help guide efforts to prevent healthcare harm. This type of approach has already helped reduce healthcare-associated infections, the organization said.

Despite localized efforts to improve patient safety, the scare of improvement has been limited and inconsistent, according to the NPSF. Some healthcare organizations have successfully implemented improving strategies, such as
using checklists, medication barcoding, revamped care transitions), but others haven’t yet been able to introduce the interventions or replicate the results.

Instead of finger-pointing and blame, the agency urges more collaboration and a coordinated, system-wide effort geared at providing safe care delivery across the continuum of care. This will require the support of healthcare workers, patient and families.

The call to action urges:

  • The creation of a national steering committee patient safety to set national patient harm reduction goals and establish a nationwide action plan.
  • The establishment of a centralized and coordinated national oversight of patient safety.
  • Partnership with patients and families by engaging them in their care.
  • Creation of national patient safety benchmarks to effective measure and monitor progress, and eliminate invalid measures.
  • Identification of the causes of harm and interventions that work. This will require funding for research on preventing healthcare harm and the creation of a Health IT Safety Center that optimizes technology and minimizes unintended consequences.
  • Expansion of resources to support the healthcare workforce, including initiatives to improve working conditions and establishment of communication, apology and resolution programs.