“Patient safety, the rising star of clinical care” - WHO

“Health care should heal, not hurt, injure, or kill,” stressed Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) in her keynote speech during the 29th International Conference of the International Society for Quality in Health Care held in Geneva, Switzerland last 22 October 2012.

Patient safety has gained public attention when reports detailed the extent of harm brought by medical mishaps. Dr. Chan said, “Patient safety is a comparatively new discipline that has rapidly risen to star status. This rise began in the late 1990s, with eye-opening reports documenting the scale of harm caused by medical errors.” The reports of WHO estimates 1.3 million deaths per year due to unsafe injections while, 1.4 million people worldwide are affected by hospitals-acquired infections.

To improve the quality and delivery of health care, the World Health Assembly in 2002 has approved a resolution that positioned patient safety in global priority. The resolution also acknowledged patient safety as the ultimate guide-rule of all health systems.

While the fundamental principle of health care is to provide utmost care to patients, the care-giving process has vulnerabilities though inherent in each stage can be dealt with accordingly.  As Dr. Chan puts it, “In clinical care, things will go wrong. To err is human. Some medical errors are unforgiveable. Others are more understandable. All can be addressed.”

As an emerging discipline in health care, patient safety confronts challenges such as the need to transform human behaviors and the hesitation of medical experts to admit errors. However, Dr. Chan is optimistic that making health care safer worldwide is achievable. Dr. Chan said, “Patient safety has a number of advantages and unique opportunities, and these fuel the energy and excitement of national initiatives, international societies, like WHO.”

One such advantage is that, patient safety is politically interesting and draws public attention that encourages accountability. As an example, Dr. Chan explained, “The numerous chat rooms and blogs where patients share their experiences, good, bad, and sometimes horrific, holding individual facilities accountable for the quality of their services.”

Measures for improving patient safety are also often simple and low-cost to initiate. According to Dr. Chan, measures such as hand hygiene and safety checklists can be quickly introduced and produce immediate results.

Solutions to address safety of patients can be applied both to developed and developing countries is another advantage for health champions. As such, Dr. Chan mentioned, “The WHO Safe Childbirth Checklist is a good example of the kind of intervention that can make a night-and-day, life-and-death difference in clinical outcomes in the developing world.”

Dr. Chan also shared that patient safety already has passionate and articulate champions. She said, “I am pleased that platforms established by WHO have given a voice to more than 250 patients groups and other champions in more than 50 countries.”

In the end, Dr. Chan reminded the champions of health that their function is centered in providing the best services to their patients. Thus, all strategies to improve delivery of health care must be designed towards the advantage of patients.  Dr. Chan concluded, “Health care will never be risk-free. But we can make these risks extremely rare rather that so disconcertingly common. The best way to make progress is to learn from each other, with our eyes clearly on the patients as the ultimate winners. We want to heal, not harm.”