Studying patient safety in health care organizations: accentuate the qualitative

Jt Comm J Qual Patient Saf. 2006 Jan;32(1):5-15. doi: 10.1016/s1553-7250(06)32002-8.


Background: The study of patient safety can benefit from greater methodological diversity to improve scientific knowledge and to increase the effectiveness and tailoring of strategies aimed at improving it.

Methodological diversity to better capture causal mechanisms and processes: Additional methods for studying patient safety and errors to reflect the complexity of what goes on within health care organizations should be made routine. Interviews, focus groups, and observation--the predominant methods used in qualitative research--are infrequently used in health services research, generally and specifically in the study of errors and patient safety. However, they offer several advantages over quantitative designs. They often are less expensive and quicker to implement; they may not need a lot of advance work; and they can be used to study retrospectively a particular failure event, outcome, or situation.

Action steps: Organizations can use an action agenda to better implement and promote the use of qualitative methods. Implementing these action steps can help achieve the attributes-trust, honesty, communication, participation, and efficiency-necessary to facilitate the qualitative approach in health care work settings.

Summary and conclusion: Qualitative approaches should be used in studying patient safety as a complement to (not a substitute for) quantitative approaches. They can be implemented more easily in organizations through structural and cultural adjustments that provide a more supportive foundation for this work.

MeSH terms

  • Health Knowledge, Attitudes, Practice
  • Humans
  • Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations
  • Medical Errors / prevention & control
  • Research Design*
  • Safety Management*
  • United States