Consider Human Factors Engineering When Designing Patient Safety Projects

Heather Comak, March 3, 2010

This is part one in a two-part series on human factors engineering and its impact on patient safety.

When Barbara Wilson, PhD, RNC, begins any new patient safety project, she first examines the principles of human factors engineering (HFE).

Wilson, assistant professor at Arizona State University's College of Nursing and Health Innovation, Center for Improving Health Outcomes in Children, Teens, & Families, says that to ensure her staff members' success, it's imperative to examine how current processes may fail.

"Every time someone makes a mistake . . . there are processes that failed before that for it to ever get to that place," says Wilson, who worked as a hospital administrator and manager at Intermountain Healthcare in Salt Lake City. "It's rarely just that one person wasn't vigilant. It's almost always a systems problem in the process."

HFE is defined by the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society as the "scientific discipline concerned with the understanding of interactions among humans and other elements of a system, and the profession that applies theory, principles, data, and other methods to design in order to optimize human well-being and overall system performance."

Although other high-reliability industries, such as aviation and nuclear power, have utilized HFE principles for decades, healthcare only recently began looking to HFE when designing processes and systems.

Creating a "culture of safety" is a concept that many healthcare facilities have become familiar with in the past five years. A culture of safety is one that deemphasizes individual blame and looks at errors from a systems perspective.

James Reason, one of the most well-known thought leaders on the topic of human error, brought his idea of the "Swiss cheese model" to healthcare to explain how errors can occur in high-reliability organizations.

"He talks about the ‘blunt end and the sharp end'—the blunt end are the organizational factors: staffing, turnover, poor policies, poor leadership, poor management," says Wilson. "All of those lead to the sharp end problems, which are the nurse and the patient, or doctor and the patient. It's the person who interacts directly with the patient that is the recipient of all of those blunt end problems."

Designing with human factors in mind
Utilizing certain basic human factors principles when starting a new project is essential to its success, says Wilson. Referencing a 2001 Journal of Healthcare Risk Management article, "Safety by design: Ten lessons from human factors research," she says using lessons such as reducing reliance on memory, managing fatigue, and reducing the need for calculations will help these initiatives succeed.

Jacob Seagull, PhD, assistant professor and director of education research in the Division of General Surgery at the University of Maryland in Baltimore, says there needs to be a preoccupation with safety at the organization.

"Everyone is involved in safety," Seagull says. "There is an unwillingness to simplify things and dumb things down. With a high-reliability organization, culture of safety has to be a pervasive issue."

Aim for system designs that are uncomplicated and require the least amount of cognitive processing, especially in emergency situations, says Seagull. He gives the example of a master mechanic's garage in which all of the tools are neatly laid out and organized. By comparison, the tubes and tools in a crash cart are often disorganized and can be a hindrance to workers trying to use them.

"A number of people have taken their crash carts and redesigned them so they are as usable as a box of wrenches," says Seagull.

This means that when the caregiver opens the crash cart drawer, he or she only has the necessary tools laid out, not an overabundance. The medications are arranged so that their labels are easy to read, and those medications that are used more often are easier to reach. This approach has shown positive results.

"Something like organizing the physical environment to support the work at hand" is easily accomplished, says Seagull, who applies human factors to medical care.

Heather Comak Heather Comak is a Managing Editor at HCPro, Inc., where she is the editor of the monthly publication Briefings on Patient Safety, as well as patient safety-related books and audio conferences. She is also is the Assistant Director of the Association for Healthcare Accreditation Professionals. Contact Heather by e-mailing
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