How Medical Students Can Learn and Apply Patient Safety

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Patient safety education for medical students

You may be surprised to learn that patient safety is not a significant focus in undergraduate medical school curricula. The research study “Patient safety education for undergraduate medical students: a systematic review” found that patient safety content ranges from only 4 to 30 hours across various medical schools. The study also found that no patient safety curriculum covered all of the accepted key areas of patient safety knowledge.

In 2009, the World Health Organization published a Patient Safety Curriculum for Medical Schools that can be considered a strong resource for identifying important aspects of patient safety that each student should learn. The patient safety topics the organization recommends medical students learn include:

  • Defining and understanding the importance of patient safety. This includes the human and monetary costs of medical errors, and what systemic and personal factors can lead to patient harm.
  • Human factors engineering. The human-to-human and human-to-machine systems interactions that can aid or hinder patient safety.
  • The health care system. How the complex relationships between patients, health care providers, administrators, the community and others influence patient safety.
  • Working as part of a team. Learning how to be an effective multidisciplinary team member to optimize patient care. This includes communication, decision-making, observational and interpersonal skills.
  • Learning from mistakes. How health care professionals make errors and how systems can be improved to keep them from happening again.
  • Understanding and managing clinical risk. This teaches students to recognize situations that put patients at risk and what to do to prevent or control those risks.
  • Quality improvement methods. This step-by-step process examines health care systems and teaches students how to identify and measure a problem, develop possible solutions to the problem, and test to see whether any of the solutions helped.
  • Patient and caregiver engagement. This is based on the idea that patients and their caregivers have vital knowledge about the patient’s own case, and health care professionals need to learn to communicate with them effectively to help maximize patient safety. Good communication is also very important to minimizing litigation against health care providers.
  • Infection control. Hospital-acquired infections are a significant risk to patients, so medical students need to be aware of guidelines for minimizing cross-infection in health care settings.
  • Safe surgery. Students should learn the best practice guidelines for ensuring that patients receive the correct surgical treatment and avoid communication errors that result in mistakes such as wrong site surgery, wrong procedures, etc.
  • Medication safety. Preventing medication errors requires strict adherence to protocols at many different steps involved in ordering, dispensing and administering medications. The old cliché about doctors having illegible handwriting can actually become a legitimate risk to patients when prescriptions or patient records are involved. See our post Improving Medication Accuracy for more information.

The WHO recommends that each topic be taught as a stand-alone course lasting 60-90 minutes including ideas for implementation and assessment. Students whose training does not cover such a broad range of safety topics should consider each subject independently and think about how it might apply to their current and future patient interactions.

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