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First posted on Educate the Young on 12/17/2012

We can’t change the human condition but we can change the conditions under which humans work.      James Reason

David Mayer MD, Vice President of Quality and Safety for MedStar Health

I had the chance to attend a mini-course on the Science of Safety at IHI’s 24th Annual Forum last week, led by Don Berwick and others. I have heard him give this talk before but it is a good message…plus Don can speak on hand soap and totally engage his audience while making the talk educational. His focus was on how and what we can learn by adapting human factors engineering principles in our healthcare work. Don referred to James Reason’s quote above, and focused his presentation on 5 Human Factors Engineering lessons healthcare has to adopt within our culture:

  1. Avoid reliance on memory
  2. Simplify
  3. Standardize
  4. Use constraints and forcing functions
  5. Use protocols and checklists

Human factors engineering expertise is being invited into the safety and quality conversation more and more today.  Similar to that of patients and families, this set of eyes and knowledge has also been lacking from discussions that lead to meaningful change in our care systems. Large integrated health systems, like MedStar Health, are taking that next step and are making major investments in human factors engineering in their quest to make care safer for their patients at any cost. Terry Fairbanks and his team at the National Center for Human Factors Engineering in Healthcare represents this new model. The only large center of it kind in human factors engineering in the United States, Terry’s team is available to help redesign our systems (and others) in the best interest of patient safety, as well as design safer and more efficient systems altogether.

What is human factors engineering? A simple explanation from Terry’s website describe it as:

…an interdisciplinary approach to evaluating and improving the safety, efficiency, and robustness of work systems, such as healthcare delivery. Human Factors scientists and engineers study the intersection of people, technology, policy, and work across multiple domains, using an interdisciplinary approach that draws from cognitive psychology, organizational psychology, human performance, industrial engineering, systems engineering, and economic theory.

As Don Berwick emphasized in his talk, a human factors approach puts science into the safety conversation–providing us new ways to look at old problems. Albert Einstein warned us ‘we can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them’ and Terry’s team introduces new and different ways of thinking about the problems in our healthcare systems that continue to put patients at risk.

On March 11-12, 2013, Terry’s team will be the official host of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (HFES) conference in Baltimore.  This will not only help the HFES draw healthcare providers and administrators into their work, but also allow attendees to better understand how human factors applied to healthcare creates a safer healthcare environment for both patients and providers. It is a “must attend” conference for those looking at taking quality and safety learning to the next level.