Expert Commentary

Win Whitcomb: Introducing Neuroquality and Neurosafety


The prefix “neuro” has become quite popular the last couple of years. We have neuroeconomics, neuroplasticity, neuroergonomics, and, of course, neurohospitalist. The explosion of interest in the brain can be seen in the popular press, television, blogs, and the Journal of the American Medical Association.

I predict that recent breakthroughs in brain science and related fields (cognitive psychology, neurobiology, molecular biology, linguistics, and artificial intelligence, among others) will have a profound impact on the fields of quality improvement (QI) and patient safety, and, consequently on HM. To date, the patient safety movement has focused on systems issues in an effort to reduce harm induced by the healthcare system. I submit that for healthcare to be reliable and error-free in the future, we must leverage the innate strengths of the brain. Here I mention four areas where brain science breakthroughs can enable us to improve patient safety practices.

Diagnostic Error

Patrick Croskerry, an emergency physician and researcher, has described errors in diagnosis as stemming in part from cognitive bias. He offers “de-biasing strategies” as an approach to decreasing diagnostic error.

One of the most powerful de-biasing strategies is metacognition, or awareness of one’s own thinking processes. Closely related to metacognition is mindfulness, defined as the “nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment.” A growing body of literature makes the case that enhancing mindfulness might reduce the impact bias has on diagnostic error.1 Table 1 (right) mentions a subset of bias types and how mindfulness might mitigate them. I’m sure you can think of cases you’ve encountered where bias has affected the diagnostic outcome.

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Table 1. Examples of Types of Bias and ‘De-Biasing’ Strategies

Empathy and Patient Experience

As the focus on patient experience grows, approaches to improving performance on patient satisfaction surveys are proliferating. Whatever technical components you choose to employ, a capacity for caregiver empathy is a crucial underlying factor to a better patient experience. Harvard psychiatrist Helen Riess, MD, points out that we are now beginning to understand the neurobiological basis of empathy. She and others present evidence that we may be able to “up-regulate” empathy through education or cognitive practices.2 Several studies suggest we might be able to realize improved therapeutic relationships between physicians and patients, and they have led to programs, such as the ones at Stanford and Emory universities, that train caregivers to enhance empathy and compassion.

Interruptions and Cognitive Error

It has been customary in high-risk industries to ensure that certain procedures are free of interruptions. There is recognition that disturbances during high-stakes tasks, such as airline takeoff, carry disastrous consequences. We now know that multitasking is a myth and that the brain instead switches between tasks sequentially. But task-switching comes at the high cost of a marked increase in the rate of cognitive error.3 As we learn more, decreasing interruptions or delineating “interruption-free” zones in healthcare could be a way to mitigate an inherent vulnerability in our cognitive abilities.

Fatigue and Medical Error

It is well documented that sleep deprivation correlates with a decline in cognitive

performance in a number of classes of healthcare workers. Fatigue has also increased diagnostic error among residents. A 2011 Sentinel Alert from The Joint Commission creates a standard that healthcare organizations implement a fatigue-management plan to mitigate the potential harm caused by tired professionals.

Most of the approaches to improving outcomes in the hospital have focused on process improvement and systems thinking. But errors also occur due to the thinking process of clinicians. In the book “Brain Rules,” author John Medina argues that schools and businesses create an environment that is less than friendly to the brain, citing current classroom design and cubicles for office workers. As a result, he states, we often have poor educational and business performance. I have little doubt that if Medina spent a few hours in a hospital, he would come to a similar conclusion: We don’t do the brain any favors when it comes to creating a healthy environment for providing safe and reliable care to our patients.


  1. Sibinga EM, Wu AW. Clinician mindfulness and patient safety. JAMA. 2010;304(22):2532-2533.
  2. Riess H. Empathy in medicine─a neurobiological perspective. JAMA. 2010;304(14):1604-1605.
  3. Rogers RD, Monsell S. The costs of a predictable switch between simple cognitive tasks. J Exper Psychol. 1995;124(2):207–231.

Dr. Whitcomb is medical director of healthcare quality at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, Mass. He is a co-founder and past president of SHM. Email him at [email protected].

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