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What Does It Take? A Case Study of Radical Change Toward Patient Safety

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Background: Adopting a human factors engineering approach to patient safety requires a radical behavioral shift from "blame and shame," which emphasizes further training, to systems thinking, which also emphasizes improved system design. A medical device manufacturer appeared to initiate this radical shift after exhibiting the traditional approach for years.

Methodology: The research focused on a patient-controlled analgesia device. A qualitative case study methodology was used to study events in the period from the device's introduction (1988) until the start of the behavioral change (May 2001). Data on 50 relevant events were analyzed. The tabular summary was analyzed for evidence of the prerequisites predicted by punctuated equilibrium theory, and the graphical time line was analyzed for evidence of vertical alignment across levels.

Results: Radical behavioral change was preceded by a critical 9.5-month period with three characteristics: new corporate leadership, perceived poor corporate performance, and aligned disruptions occurring within a relatively short time at almost every level in the external environment in which the company operated.

Discussion: These findings are consistent with punctuated equilibrium theory, according to which organizations can experience long periods of resistance to change followed by fast revolutionary change (approximately two years). The findings also have implications for when and how to introduce patient safety policy interventions to "tilt the playing field" and thereby increase the likelihoood that such reforms will succeed.

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: November 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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