Developing a Culture of Safety in Healthcare Organizations

Tanya Fish
Tanya Fish

Group of healthcare nurses and doctors putting their hands in a huddle

Strengthening safety culture remains one of the greatest challenges faced by healthcare organizations today. It is also one of the most necessary challenges to overcome for a healthcare organization to thrive. In a highly demanding environment where the lives of people are in the hands of the healthcare team, it’s critical to have high performing teams.

Challenges with creating high performing teams and a safe healthcare experience include:

  • Staff shortages
    • Work hours, work load and staffing ratio impact patient safety
  • Lack of staff engagement
  • Staff burnout
  • A rapidly changing environment including advancing technology and increased public transparency
  • A culture of blame, which leads to covering up errors

How can healthcare professionals overcome these challenges and make their organizations future-proof? Read on to learn some specific ways to start building a safety culture by introducing a transformational culture shift.

Why Is a Culture of Safety Necessary?

The most important outcomes at any healthcare organization are patient safety, patient wellbeing and patient experiences.

Reducing the potential for unnecessary accidents is crucial to the overall success of a healthcare organization. A focus on patient safety improvements could potentially reduce half of all hospital-caused deaths in low-rated hospitals, according to a recent report from the Armstrong Institute for Patient Safety and Quality at Johns Hopkins Medicine.

This is a big priority for healthcare organizations given the focus on quality and safety, particularly as it relates to another key measure: Potentially Preventable Events (PPEs). As healthcare teams are pressured to achieve, it’s more important than ever to understand the behaviors that drive positive outcomes.

Factors That Impact Potentially Preventable Events in Healthcare

Potentially Preventable Events, particularly complications resulting from lack of safe and quality treatment/care, can be avoided by influencing the following:

A Learning Environment

  • In psychologically safe environments, people are willing to offer up ideas, questions, concerns—they are even willing to fail—and when they do, they learn. In studying some of the highest performing teams at Google and Toyota, they have found that process guidelines are important—but more important is that people frame every problem as a learning opportunity, where success is dependent on people taking risks and being vulnerable in front of their peers.

Employee Engagement

  • The number-one indicator of high mortality is nurse engagement—the dedication they have for their job and how effective they are.
  • Employees that are present, focused, happy and healthy are more likely to bring positive energy to the team and to the patient experience, while also having a willingness to take on daily challenges.

Open Communication

  • Joint Commission predicted that 80% of serious safety events occur due to miscommunications among healthcare professionals.
  • W. Edwards Deming, guru of performance improvement, outlines in his 14 points of improvement that it is critical to eliminate fear and allow people to perform at their best by using open and honest communication to remove fear from the organization. “Many employees are afraid to ask questions or to take a position, even when they do not understand what the job is or what is right or wrong. People will continue to do things the wrong way, or not to do them at all.”
  • According to Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson in her TEDx talk, what separates the best performing work groups from the others is psychological safety and an environment where mistakes are discussed and learned from.

Teamwork (behavior that shows respect for others)

Related: Focusing holistically on employees and leveraging their individual motivations, every employee will be engaged from hire to retirement. Find out how we use Motivology, our own brand of motivation, to identify and balance the internal and external motivators needed to align and motivate your people.

5 Ways to Create a Culture of Safety In Healthcare

Today’s healthcare workers are stressed out and fatigued. In this harmful environment, educating and rewarding them more for behavior-based metrics known to support their productivity while also contributing to high-quality, safe and effective patient experience is a topic that needs to be approached with care. 

A safety culture is characterized by shared core values and goals, non-punitive responses to adverse events and errors and promotion of safety through education and training. A safety culture requires strong, committed leadership, along with the engagement and empowerment of all employees.

Concentrate on these five areas to engage and empower employees:

  1. Define your culture of safety, recognition and engagement and communicate your culture story, creating a movement within your organization that reminds employees every day why their acts of safety are important and why they love to work for your organization.
  2. Establish ambassadors to advocate for a safety culture—position them as leaders in the organization that will promote safety and listen to the voice of employees on the topic.
  3. Provide training and education on acts of safety including interprofessional communication and collaboration (particularly important in transitions in care and hand-offs), with recognition and rewards for completion and competency.
  4. Recognize and reward real-time behaviors of teamwork, collaboration, open communications and accountability so individuals develop dependability on each other and feel secure and supported in sharing their feedback in day-to-day work . When you show you value these things, people will gain comfort in using their voices and collaborating more openly.
    1. Better yet, give your people the ability to reward each other—not just top-down recognition—for acts tied to safety from proper lifting form to open team collaboration about an issue.
  5. Communicate key metrics related to the success of your people and organization as it relates to safety. When people can see their progress toward personal and organization-wide goals, they’ll stay engaged and motivated.

Start Developing a Safety Culture Now

To build a safety culture with high performing teams, focus on your people. Who is on a team matters less than how the team members interact, structure their work and view their contributions. Your people are more than just who they are during their shift, and the success of your culture is directly linked to the emphasis you put on your people. Give them the ability and autonomy to succeed and the benefits they crave, and you’ll get a boost in individual performance, engagement and motivation. Ignite passion in your people and transform your culture to engage, motivate and future-proof your organization.

Tanya Fish

Tanya Fish

Tanya’s focus is on creating innovative solutions across industries that engage the hearts and minds of employees to drive better results. She loves inspiring passion in people, something she believes impacts the individual, the organization and the community. Tanya’s past work and studies on organizational leadership in business, employee health and well-being, culture and health insurance guides her unique perspective on driving organizational health and success. Tanya is driven through achievement, learning and empowerment and balanced by time with family and friends, a good margarita and time outdoors.