WHO patient safety initiative led by University of Sydney academic

17 October 2011

A University of Sydney academic is behind a new World Health Organization guide that targets health complications and even deaths that occur as result of human error during patient care.

Professor Merrilyn Walton, a world leader in the area of patient safety, was the main author of the new publication, The Patient Safety Curriculum Guide, Multi-Professional Edition. Bruce Barraclough, an honorary professor at the University, chaired the guide's working group.

The guide, which will be launched by WHO in Manila this Wednesday (19 October), is based on patient safety curriculum first developed by a team led by Professor Walton from the Sydney Medical School.

"This new guide provides a framework to be used in the education of all health professionals to reduce adverse events and make health care safer," said Professor Walton.

The University of Sydney's work at the forefront of patient safety education was first recognised when Professor Walton was asked to lead a team to develop the first WHO Patient Safety Curriculum Guide for Medical Schools - published in 2009 and the predecessor to this new edition for all health professionals.

Professor Walton says patient safety shouldn't be seen as just another subject to teach, but instead as something to be integrated into the entire curriculum.

"Patient safety is a way of thinking that integrates patient safety into daily practice at the patient's bedside. It is about putting the patients at the centre of care and then applying patient safety knowledge and skills to keep patients safe," she said.

"It is about how you communicate with patients, how you communicate with the rest of the health care team, how you anticipate human failures and problems, how you apply techniques that are known to improve accuracy, and the timely application of information."

Professor Walton gives the example of teaching students how to insert a cannula into a patient. A patient safety-focussed approached would not simply teach the technical skill of inserting the cannula, but would teach health care workers a number of other skills that improve safety.

"It is equally important to teach students how to educate patients about the risk of infections developing after 48 hours, the need to obtain consent and properly disclose information about your level of experience, and the importance of accurately recording times on medical records," Professor Walton notes.

The introduction to the new guide notes that error is routine during the delivery of health care and occurs in around 10 percent of hospital admissions. The WHO guide - which is supported by international bodies representing dentists, pharmacists, nurses and midwives, as well as the World Medical Association - will be taken up by educators around the world.

"It is extremely satisfying to see something we have been working on for so many years, and which had its origins in Australia and the University of Sydney, being recognised and implemented around the world," Professor Walton said.

The dean of Sydney Medical School, Professor Bruce Robinson, said the new guide would make an important contribution to patient safety. "Throughout their careers, both Professor Walton and Professor Bruce Barraclough have been absolutely dedicated to improving patient safety. What better way to improve safety outcomes than by having a clear guide to safety focused teaching for the educators of the next generation of health professionals."

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