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How HR Can Promote a Culture of Safety

By Lena J. Weiner  
   January 18, 2016

Patient safety starts with hospital workers feeling comfortable about expressing concerns. Here's how HR can help establish a hospital culture that promotes safety.

One patient safety advocacy organization thinks HR can be instrumental in building cultures that can help keep both patients and workers safe.  

"We talk about a culture where everyone is comfortable talking about errors, issues, or hazards that they see without fear of punishment," says Tejal Gandhi, MD, MPH, president and CEO of the National Patient Safety Foundation, headquartered in Boston. "And that the organization uses that information to learn and improve."


Tejal Gandhi, MD, MPH

What Gandhi is referring to is a "just culture."The term is used to describe policies that acknowledge that mistakes happen, and which strive to ensure a lack of blame.  

Rather than pointing fingers and punishing someone when something goes wrong, a just culture emphasizes searching for the root cause of the error. "You make sure that the inquiry doesn't stop with, 'Dr. Jones should have known not to do that.'  

Instead, you look to understand, 'Why did Dr. Jones do that? What contributed to her thinking that this was the right course of action?' That's how you learn how to prevent these situations from happening again in the future," says Gandhi.

The information that would help hospital leadership understand what went wrong—or is likely to go wrong in the future— is usually not hard to find, but hospital workers can find it tough to reach across the aisle to employees in other departments.  

"Oftentimes, different departments become siloed… HR is in a unique position to break down those siloes," Gandhi says.  

She recommends three ways that HR leaders can start instituting a more collaborative culture conducive to safety.  

1.Educate Leadership
Partner With: CEO, Board of Directors

Make sure hospital leadership understands why a just culture matters. An open, fair culture where workers feel comfortable sharing concerns and information across departments leads to improved patient outcomes, says Gandhi.

Teach hospital leaders about root cause analysis and ensuring that they are committed to resolving safety issues—not just assigning blame.  

Also, leaders should be aware of the very real dangers that threaten healthcare professionals. For example, not only are nurses five to six times more likely to be assaulted than a cab driver in an urban area, but the high potential for on-the-job injury is enough to cause burnout.  

"If your workforce is getting physically or psychologically harmed, it will be hard to deliver the best care to patients or achieve patient safety," Gandhi says.  

Lena J. Weiner is an associate editor at HealthLeaders Media.

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