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Preventing Medical Errors by Designing Benign Failures

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Background: One way to successfully reduce medical errors is to design health care systems that are more resistant to the tendencies of human beings to err. One interdisciplinary approach entails creating design changes, mitigating human errors, and making human error irrelevant to outcomes. This approach is intended to facilitate the creation of benign failures, which have been called mistake-proofing devices and forcing functions elsewhere.

Using fault trees to design forcing functions: A fault tree is a graphical tool used to understand the relationships that either directly cause or contribute to the cause of a particular failure. A careful analysis of a fault tree enables the analyst to anticipate how the process will behave after the change.

Example of an application: A scenario in which a patient is scalded while bathing can serve as an example of how multiple fault trees can be used to design forcing functions. The first fault tree shows the undesirable event—patient scalded while bathing. The second fault tree has a benign event—no water. Adding a scald valve changes the outcome from the undesirable event ("patient scalded while bathing") to the benign event ("no water")

Limitations: Analysis of fault trees does not ensure or guarantee that changes necessary to eliminate error actually occur. Most mistake-proofing is used to prevent simple errors and to create well-defended processes, but complex errors can also result.

Conclusions: The utilization of mistake-proofing or forcing functions can be thought of as changing the logic of a process. Errors that formerly caused undesirable failures can be converted into the causes of benign failures. The use of fault trees can provide a variety of insights into the design of forcing functions that will improve patient safety.

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: July 1, 2003

More about this publication?
  • Published monthly, The Joint Commission Journal on Quality and Patient Safety is a peer-reviewed publication dedicated to providing health professionals with the information they need to promote the quality and safety of health care. The Joint Commission Journal on Quality and Patient Safety invites original manuscripts on the development, adaptation, and/or implementation of innovative thinking, strategies, and practices in improving quality and safety in health care. Case studies, program or project reports, reports of new methodologies or new applications of methodologies, research studies on the effectiveness of improvement interventions, and commentaries on issues and practices are all considered.

    Also known as Joint Commission Journal on Quality Improvement and Joint Commission Journal on Quality and Safety
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