Using patient safety as tool to improve health inequalities

Viewing health inequalities through the lens of patient safety could help health care professionals and organizations define concrete steps to improve the care and outcomes of people in marginalized ethnic populations, according to an analysis co-authored by Cian Wade, an MPH candidate at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Patient safety is the science and practice of minimizing harm and error experienced by patients. Patient safety incidents are potentially extremely harmful and preventable events, and include postoperative complications, like infections or deep vein thrombosis; adverse events related to medications, such as administering a medication to the wrong patient or the failure to check allergy status; and “never events,” like performing surgery on the wrong site or leaving a foreign object in a patient after a procedure.

In the analysis, published March 29, 2022 in the BMJ, Wade and his co-authors focused on the outcomes of patients from black, Hispanic, and Asian ethnic backgrounds in high-income countries with a majority white population. They noted that these groups more frequently experience some types of patient safety incidents, and that these populations are more likely to be harmed during their interactions with health care systems because of “interpersonal and structural factors,” including ineffective communication during clinical care, implicit biases among health care providers, and medical educational and clinical treatment approaches designed around white patient populations.

The authors wrote, “Framing worsened health inequalities as a product of lapses in patient safety identifies lines of responsibility and enables health care providers to tap into lessons from decades of improvement in patient safety to highlight tangible actions to mitigate them.”

Read the BMJ analysis: Action on patient safety can reduce health inequalities