New guidance to reduce human error and improve safety released as UK health service falls to its knees
Wednesday 11 January 2023
The UK National Health Service is being brought to its knees by a perfect storm of difficulties: poor flow through hospitals resulting in crowded emergency departments and long ambulance waits, increases in respiratory illnesses causing increased workloads and staff absences, combined with pre-existing staff shortages and strikes due to working conditions and pay in nurses, ambulance crews and potentially in future junior doctors.
More than ever, there is a need to strengthen systems ensuring patient safety and to reduce the impact of human error in health care, using so-called ‘human factors’, an evidence-based scientific discipline used in safety critical industries. New guidance is being published today in the journal Anaesthesia for clinicians, departments, hospitals and national healthcare organisations, to enable them to design and maintain safe systems that will reduce the risk and potential impact of human error by individuals or teams.
“We are not only discussing avoidable deaths here, but also long-term consequences in patients who survive when avoidable errors and adverse events occur”
Human error, reluctance to challenge authority and reliance on inadequate systems were among key factors in a number of high-profile deaths, including those of Elaine Bromiley (2005) and Glenda Logsdail (2020) (see notes to editors). Both patients were having straightforward operations but teamworking and communication problems played a significant part in both of their deaths.
“We are not only discussing avoidable deaths here, but also long-term consequences in patients who survive when avoidable errors and adverse events occur,” says guidance co-author Dr Fiona Kelly, Consultant in Anaesthesia and Intensive care Medicine at the Royal United Hospitals Bath NHS Foundation Trust, Bath, UK. “The new guidance has analysed all the potential areas in anaesthesia where human error can creep in with potentially devastating outcomes, and is likely to be applicable to other healthcare specialities. This ‘human factors’ approach aims to make it easy for workers to do the right thing, and difficult, or ideally impossible, for them to do the wrong thing.”
The guidance has been by produced by a working party of the Difficult Airway Society and the Association of Anaesthetists, and is supported by the Royal College of Anaesthetists and other national organisations. The team includes Dr Kelly and Professor Chris Frerk, Consultant Anaesthetist at Northampton General Hospital, University of Leicester Medical School, and Chair of the Clinical Human Factors Group (a charity dedicated to making healthcare safer). The guidance is also being presented in a special session at the Winter Scientific Meeting of the Association of Anaesthetists in London from January 12-13.
The wide-ranging guidance addresses issues including the design of operating theatres; well -designed medical equipment and using the most effective equipment; effective use of checklists before operating; encouraging staff of any seniority to speak up if they have safety concerns; the ability to learn from not only situations where things have gone wrong, sometimes fatally so, but also from situations where things have gone well; and training and education.
Human factors principles and strategies have been incorporated successfully into safety critical industries, including nuclear power, offshore oil and gas, aviation, construction, rail and the military. Implementation of human factors principles, education and methods within healthcare has made some progress in the past 20 years, including, for example, the adoption of regular team briefings and staff safety huddles. This has been due in part to the work of Martin Bromiley (husband of Elaine) who is an airline pilot fully accustomed to the day-in day-out use of safety procedures that minimise the risk of air accidents. The incredibly helpful and cooperative approach of both Mr Bromiley, and others including Richard Logsdail (husband of Glenda), in helping address systemic faults involved in the death of their partners, has played a huge role in enabling today’s new guidance.
Human factors strategies can be categorised into four domains arranged in a pyramid shape (figure 1 full paper) according to their likely effectiveness. Design (of environment, equipment and systems) is the strategy likely to be most effective and forms the base of the pyramid. ‘Designing out’ the chance of an error occurring reduces the requirement for exceptional human performance commonly relied upon in healthcare. Design strategies are followed in order by barriers (which trap errors to prevent them progressing), mitigations (which reduce the consequences of errors - such as analysis of deaths or critical events) and education and training. However, the authors explain that the current UK healthcare system is more like the pyramid turned upside-down (figure 2 full paper), with heavy reliance on high levels of human performance and a resultant small and unstable foundation for safety. In the current UK healthcare climate, the authors say this upside-down pyramid is even more unstable.
After a 5-year-process, the Working Group agreed on 12 recommendations to form the new guidance, split among different areas of the ‘pyramid.’ (see notes to editors for full recommendations).
The authors say: “Healthcare relies on high levels of human performance, as described by the `human as the hero´ concept. However, human performance varies and is recognised to fall in high-pressure situations, meaning that it is not a reliable method of ensuring safety. Other safety-critical industries embed human factors principles into all aspects of their organisations to improve safety and reduce reliance on exceptional human performance; there is potential to do the same in anaesthesia and in healthcare in the broader sense.”
Adding that improving human factors is in no way a substitute for proper funding and resourcing of hospitals and healthcare systems, the authors conclude: “Although applying human factors science has the potential to save money in the long term, its proper implementation may require investment before reward can be reaped.”
Professor Frerk adds: “Care given within the NHS has become increasingly complex over the last 20 years, and is now delivered by teams of nurses, physiotherapists, pharmacists, doctors and other support staff. As many as 1 in 10 patients are harmed during their interactions with the NHS; this is not because staff don’t care or don’t try hard to do the right thing. The old model of healthcare where we assumed that having knowledge (and experience) about the heart, lungs, cancer or arthritis would be enough to keep patients safe is just not the case anymore. Adopting a ‘human factors’ approach across healthcare, to eliminate the risk and impact of human error, has been on the national agenda for more than 10 years. With this guidance, we want to start to move this approach into everyday practice for everyone in the NHS.”