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A novel approach to patient safety education: patients become the teachers


Patient safety education has taken many different approaches over the years, but an article in the Postgraduate Medical Journal suggests an innovative approach to teaching patient safety: the patients teach the providers.

While educators have always relied on patient case studies to add an engaging narrative to patient safety, these studies exclusively come from the clinician’s perspective. As such, they focus on the technical aspects of patient safety, detailing the communication and procedures that can prevent errors or help the team respond to an unexpected crisis. The patient perspective can be lost in these reports, which can deemphasize the importance of the patient and their family in care settings.

To help keep the patient at the center of patient safety, researchers are engaging patients in teaching patient safety. While there are many potential benefits, the researchers see two main advantages to this approach:

  • Using patients and their families to educate caregivers offers an authentic perspective on harm resulting from a patient safety incident. Adding their perspective can make the topic engaging and interesting to the learner. Educators often struggle to communicate the importance of patient safety education, as some learners find the topic abstract or irrelevant; adding the tangible face and voice of patients to the education can make the content instantly relevant.
  • Many education programs lack the resources and faculty to teach effective patient safety. Using patients as trainers can help address this issue, by creating experiential learning experiences around their stories and can take the pressure off of patient safety educators to craft lessons.

The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) funded a controlled trial of patient-led patient safety education initiative. While the study did not find a notable difference in the learners’ attitude towards patient safety, they did report a major difference in the learners’ emotional and empathetic response. They found that the learners that used the patient-led approach had more extreme responses to the subject, positive and negative.

While negative emotions might seem undesirable, a well-facilitated class can help learners engage with their emotional response and use their emotion to keep the learner interested in the subject. Instituting briefings and debriefings that impart learning objectives and key lessons before and after a patient anecdote. Creating a supportive climate, for both the patient and the learners, is also instrumental to the experience as well; patients will require trust to share their traumatic experiences and learners should feel comfortable expressing their emotional response.

Because the research is limited and the idea recent, there are other considerations that studies have yet to measure. In their PMJ article, Antonia Stang and Brain Wong concluded that researchers need to: “know more about the link between the affective impact of patient narratives and long-term learner outcomes; and develop strategies to mitigate potential negative emotional and cognitive impacts on the learner and the patient or family.” Once these concerns are addressed, patient involvement in patient safety education could be a great way to keep your staff engaged and maintain their empathy for patients.