Focusing on Patient Safety During National Health Care Quality Week

By Don Wright, MD, MPH, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Health, Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Editor’s note: October 18-24, 2015 is National Health Care Quality Week. This post was first published as an editorial that appeared in a campaign entitled The Future of Health Care under the headline Putting Patients First: Improving Care Outcomes in 2015.

shutterstock_77867131Recent headlines about antibiotic-resistant superbugs might make people wonder how to stay safe when receiving medical care.

With an estimated 1 in 25 patients acquiring infections while hospitalized on any given day, it is important to be aware of the risks. Public health agencies and health care providers, as well as patients and their families, all have critical roles to play in keeping patients safe.

On the frontlines

The public health workforce addresses patient safety by setting priorities and outlining strategies to prevent harm to patients. Common issues in health care settings include infections, medication errors and side effects.

At the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, we work with national policymakers and stakeholders to set benchmarks and goals for preventing common issues such as these. State and local health departments across the country use the goals and benchmarks that are developed at the national level to design prevention programs that provide oversight of healthcare facilities and improve patients’ access to health information.

Protect and serve

Doctors, nurses, pharmacists and other health care professionals can implement prevention strategies to improve patient safety.

For example, electronic health records track prescription medications and improve coordination between care providers. Health care professionals also can use the principles of health literacy as a prevention strategy to improve patient safety.

Health information can be complex and difficult to understand. It is important that patients understand instructions from health care providers for taking medication and follow-up care. Health care providers can seek training on communicating complex health information in language that is easy to understand.

For example, offers free self-paced trainings for health care professionals that use health literacy principles to improve patient safety by preventing infections and unintentional harm caused by opioids and diabetes medications.

Self care

Patients and their families have an important role in ensuring their safety in health care settings.

Most importantly, patients and their families should ask questions if they don’t understand information about a medication or procedure. For example, if a patient is prescribed a medication, it is important to understand what the medication is used for, how to take the medication and if there are any side effects.

If a surgical procedure is recommended for a patient, it is important to ask why the surgery is needed, how often the surgeon performs the procedure and whether other treatment options are available.

By taking an active role in understanding their care, patients and their families can partner with their health care providers to ensure better health outcomes. Patients and their families also can use resources such as 20 Tips to Help Prevent Medical Errors and Five Steps to Safer Health Care, from the Agency for Health Care Research and Quality, and Hospital Compare, available at, to find safety information.

Prevention strategies such as improving patients’ access to health information, using electronic health records and improving the health literacy of patients are more than just good policy for ensuring patient safety—strategies like these could save billions of dollars in health care costs. Reducing costs helps make access to safe, high-quality health care more affordable for everyone.