And yet, we know that mistakes are inevitable. We also know that if we talk about them, we are more likely to prevent their recurrence. The problem is that healthcare workers often avoid acknowledging that an error has occurred. This is typically due to a culture where mistakes are accompanied by some form of punishment, and people often feel humiliated and blamed. Hospital settings can also perpetuate a culture where the negativity bias is enhanced with physician peer review committees and incident reporting systems.
We need a solution. We need to transform a culture of blame into a culture of learning, where the reporting of medical errors is welcomed because it serves as a teaching opportunity. Even the word “error” can sound daunting and intimidating. I encourage healthcare professionals to instead think of errors as learning opportunities to make it easier to talk about.
Here are five practical strategies to mitigate the negativity bias and improve patient safety and outcomes:
- Build a culture that rewards the reporting and discussion of medical errors and reframes them as learning opportunities. Rewards can take the form of verbal and/or written recognition. There might be a “case of the month,” where managers identify a case or cases with the greatest learning opportunity.
- Provide a system that encourages reporting of near misses, which are also great learning opportunities.
- Ask questions focused on the what, why or how and less on the who when creating a learning opportunity from a near miss or an error. This will help minimize feelings of blame and shame.
- Delay submissions of incident reports until after you speak with the person who is identified in the report. This avoids the problem of many reporting systems where people write someone up rather than communicate directly.
- Augment learning from errors or mistakes with lots of acknowledgement of what people have done well. Remember, it takes about eight or nine positives to overcome the effects of the negativity bias.
To paraphrase Alexander Pope, "To err is human, but to learn is divine."
Catherine Hambley, PhD, is CEO of Brain-Based Strategies Consulting, where she specializes in executive coaching, leadership and team development and organizational transformation. Catherine has an extensive background in healthcare, where she works with physicians, nurses and hospital executives to create cultures of learning, collaboration and engagement. Check out her website at www.brainbasedstrategies.com.