Five system barriers to achieving ultrasafe health care

Ann Intern Med. 2005 May 3;142(9):756-64. doi: 10.7326/0003-4819-142-9-200505030-00012.


Although debate continues over estimates of the amount of preventable medical harm that occurs in health care, there seems to be a consensus that health care is not as safe and reliable as it might be. It is often assumed that copying and adapting the success stories of nonmedical industries, such as civil aviation and nuclear power, will make medicine as safe as these industries. However, the solution is not that simple. This article explains why a benchmarking approach to safety in high-risk industries is needed to help translate lessons so that they are usable and long lasting in health care. The most important difference among industries lies not so much in the pertinent safety toolkit, which is similar for most industries, but in an industry's willingness to abandon historical and cultural precedents and beliefs that are linked to performance and autonomy, in a constant drive toward a culture of safety. Five successive systemic barriers currently prevent health care from becoming an ultrasafe industrial system: the need to limit the discretion of workers, the need to reduce worker autonomy, the need to make the transition from a craftsmanship mindset to that of equivalent actors, the need for system-level (senior leadership) arbitration to optimize safety strategies, and the need for simplification. Finally, health care must overcome 3 unique problems: a wide range of risk among medical specialties, difficulty in defining medical error, and various structural constraints (such as public demand, teaching role, and chronic shortage of staff). Without such a framework to guide development, ongoing efforts to improve safety by adopting the safety strategies of other industries may yield reduced dividends. Rapid progress is possible only if the health care industry is willing to address these structural constraints needed to overcome the 5 barriers to ultrasafe performance.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Accident Prevention
  • Communication
  • Delivery of Health Care / standards*
  • Humans
  • Industry / standards
  • Medical Errors / prevention & control*
  • Professional Autonomy
  • Risk Assessment
  • Safety