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How to Implement a Clinical Debriefing Program at Health Systems and Hospitals

Analysis  |  By Christopher Cheney  
   December 09, 2021

Clinical event debriefing efforts serve three purposes, linking safety, quality, and staff wellness.

Clinical debriefing efforts can drive several benefits at health systems and hospitals, according to the NYC Health + Hospitals presenters of a session at this week's IHI Forum.

The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality provides a definition of clinical debriefing: "A dialogue between two or more people whose goals are to discuss the actions and thought processes involved in a particular patient care situation to encourage reflection on those actions and thought processes and incorporate improvement into future performance."

"Three key things stick out to me: dialogue, reflection, and improvement," said Mona Krouse, MD, patient safety officer at NYC Health + Hospitals.

Clinical debriefings are a way to capitalize on information, said Suzanne Bentley, MD, medical director of the Elmhurst Satellite Simulation Center at NYC Health + Hospitals.

"It captures reflections and gets them down with each other and why we are doing things and how we can do them differently. So, it serves to supply information. It allows us to identify knowledge gaps. It offers reflection on local culture, workforce, and team functioning, including identifying issues or struggles when they are present. Above all else, debriefing can serve as a change agent for work toward becoming a culture that has more of these conversations and more sharing so we can all come together to be better," she said.

The purpose of clinical debriefings is trifold, linking safety, quality, and staff wellness, Bentley said, adding that boosting wellness is often underestimated in clinical debriefing efforts.

"Wellness is not a hidden agenda, but it is definitely an unrecognized benefit that comes with debriefing. We should be debriefing with a lens toward wellness and how we are supporting the participants who are filtering in useful information. No one can truly engage in discussions around patient safety and around quality healthcare while they are in distress. There is literature that backs this up. … Additionally, no one can truly heal without having a safe outlet to share their ideas and their suggestions for how things could have gone differently," she said.

Debriefing not only improves patient outcomes but also improves staff outcomes, Krouse said. "Especially now during the COVID-19 pandemic, the crisis hit home for a lot of people in healthcare. Personally speaking, this has been a very tough time, and debriefing offers a space to talk about how you are feeling. In studies, debriefings have been shown to reduce stress and anxiety, improve morale, improve work satisfaction, and decrease burnout."

Overcoming barriers to debriefing

The IHI Forum session also addressed barriers to implementing clinical debriefing efforts.

For example, one of the primary barriers is the perception that it is hard to debrief in the right way, said Komal Bajaj, MD, MS, chief quality officer, Jacobi Medical Center, NYC Health + Hospitals.

"What we have learned over time is that there is not one right way to debrief. There are many published models that all have a few common themes. One is an attention to psychological safety. Two, there is some acknowledgment or solicitation of reactions. Three, there is some discussion about the case itself—what went well and what are the opportunities for improvement. Four, there are takeaways—either takeaways for the individual or takeaways for actions," she said.

Whatever model of debriefing you use, you can craft it to fit your organization, Bajaj said. "It is about picking the tool that meets your needs. As you are thinking about your clinical debriefing program, look at it as a buffet, where you are able to pick and choose formats or questions that seem to make sense for your environment. At the end of the day, we as humans are used to having conversations all the time, with our patients and with each other."

Planning for clinical debriefing programs

Before a clinical event debriefing program is established, key stakeholders and leadership should find answers to a series of questions, Bajaj said.

  • Who are the stakeholders who need to be engaged? "There are some powerful examples that you can share from the literature as to why debriefing can improve wellness, culture of safety, and quality. Those are powerful examples to share with stakeholders. There is a return on investment for this work," she said.
  • What debriefing framework works best for your environment? "It depends on what you want to accomplish. There is no one way to debrief," she said.
  • Who will serve as debriefing champions? "The best examples we have seen are interprofessional. Anyone can serve as a debriefing champion, but there needs to be some discussion about who will serve as a debriefing champion and what training they will need," she said.
  • How can you foster psychological safety? "We implemented our first debriefing program eight years ago, when debriefing was a dirty word. For the weeks and months leading up to launching our debriefing program, we asked, 'What is debriefing?' It is not meant for individual blame—it is meant for conversations. Our intention was to learn and to be better. The first couple of debriefings we had, there were only two or three people participating. … As people saw that what we talked about got fixed and changed—the idea of closed loop debriefing—debriefing began to be embedded into the culture," she said.
  • What clinical events should be debriefed? "It is good to start with events that are not the most serious or have the most unfavorable outcomes. You should think about the day-to-day things that can be debriefed, so those muscles are ready when there is a more challenging discussion," she said.

Christopher Cheney is the CMO editor at HealthLeaders.


Dialogue, reflection, and improvement are essential elements of clinical debriefing efforts.

The value of boosting staff wellness is often underestimated in clinical debriefing efforts.

When adopting a clinical debriefing program, it is best to review the available models and select the components that are a good fit for your organization.

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