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Health Care Manag (Frederick). 2006 Oct-Dec;25(4):292-305.

An organizational approach to understanding patient safety and medical errors.

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From the Department of Health Care Administration, Trinity University, San Antonio, TX 78212, USA.


Progress in patient safety, or lack thereof, is a cause for great concern. In this article, we argue that the patient safety movement has failed to reach its goals of eradicating or, at least, significantly reducing errors because of an inappropriate focus on provider and patient-level factors with no real attention to the organizational factors that affect patient safety. We describe an organizational approach to patient safety using different organizational theory perspectives and make several propositions to push patient safety research and practice in a direction that is more likely to improve care processes and outcomes. From a Contingency Theory perspective, we suggest that health care organizations, in general, operate under a misfit between contingencies and structures. This misfit is mainly due to lack of flexibility, cost containment, and lack of regulations, thus explaining the high level of errors committed in these organizations. From an organizational culture perspective, we argue that health care organizations must change their assumptions, beliefs, values, and artifacts to change their culture from a culture of blame to a culture of safety and thus reduce medical errors. From an organizational learning perspective, we discuss how reporting, analyzing, and acting on error information can result in reduced errors in health care organizations.

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