As we work with a wide variety of clients across the country and around the world, we have been noticing that a significant number of organizations have posted information indicating that “safety is a top priority” or words to that effect.  While this attention to safety, both patient and employee, is laudable the fact that it is a priority is somewhat concerning.

The definition of a priority is “a thing that is regarded as more important than another.”   Organizational priorities are externally imposed on employees and this automatically creates a condition of “buy-in” rather than ownership.  These priorities can be driven by circumstances which end up leading to a change in priorities.

Clearly, that is not how most organizations would really want safety to be perceived.  We know for certain that patient safety is still a critical issue in healthcare delivery and we have a long way to go to achieve systems that are truly safe.  At a Senate panel last year it was noted that preventable medical errors in hospitals are the third leading cause of death in the United States.  Only heart disease and cancer kill more Americans.  A study in the Journal of Patient Safety concluded that as many as 440,000 people die each year from preventable medical errors in hospitals.  What is more, many patients die from preventable mistakes outside of hospitals.

With safety as a priority in so many organizations, how are these numbers still possible?

One explanation may be the very fact that organizations have safety classified as a priority. So what’s wrong with safety as a priority? The answer is that priorities change and move up and down our lists.  What was a priority today may be replaced by something different tomorrow.  Financial conditions may change creating new priorities, services may change or personnel may change — all impacting the priority list.  But the importance of providing safe care for our patients and safe working conditions for our employees NEVER changes, so safety shouldn’t really be a priority.

Instead of designating safety as a priority we should consider it a core value. Core values are those principles that are at the very essence of our organizations and do not change from time-to-time, person-to-person, or situation-to-situation.  Core values are those values that form the foundation on which we perform work and conduct ourselves and are the practices we should use every day in everything we do. For healthcare, everything we do should start and end with patient and employee safety at the forefront of our actions and this should occur throughout the organization from the CEO to the newest entry-level employee.

While that is a significant undertaking for any organization we can and should address this in our own “business of pharmacy.”  With medications being a leading cause of medical error, we should work to make safety a core value in every one of our “pharmacy businesses” and to provide care and services that are safe for our patients as well as our employees.  It is entirely possible for us to provide care that produces no medication errors causing patient harm.

Have we looked at our pharmacy practices and processes through the lens of safety as a core value?  Have we challenged our internal processes, automation and software in terms of maximum safety?  Have we considered new ways of thinking and innovations in terms of safety?  Have we used external resources to analyze our internal systems with a “fresh pair of eyes” and an objective perspective?    When we can say an emphatic “yes” to each of these questions, our businesses of pharmacy can be the model for safety as a core value for the larger healthcare community.



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