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PSNet: Patient Safety Network
Journal Article

Balancing "no blame" with accountability in patient safety.

Wachter RM, Pronovost PJ. New Engl J Med. 2009;361(14):1401-1406.

An early focus of the patient safety movement was a shift from the traditional culture of individual blame to one that investigated errors as the failure of systems, popularized by adoption of James Reason's Swiss cheese model of organizational accidents. In recent years, there has been some backlash against a unidimensional systems-focused model, with past commentaries exploring the tension between a "no blame" culture and individual accountability. Articles in this genre have considered this tension in the educational setting, and a popular construct involves a just culture framework, which differentiates "no blame" from blameworthy acts. This commentary, written by two of the leaders in the safety field, further explores the relationship between blame and accountability, discusses why enforcement of safety standards tends to be lax (particularly in cases involving physicians), and proposes a working balance that not only promotes a safety culture but also safe patient care. The authors highlight hand hygiene non-compliance as an example of a behavior that should be managed through an accountability framework, with providers held accountable for failure to adhere to a known safety standard. They also offer suggested penalties (mostly involving suspension of clinical privileges) for repeated failures to comply with hand hygiene and other established safe practices.