Report on England’s Health System Mirrors Need for Improvement in U.S.


Don Berwick, MD, former president and CEO of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI) and former administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), recently consulted with the National Health Service (NHS) on how to devise and implement a safer and better healthcare system for England. His services were solicited due to a number of high-profile scandals involving neglect in hospitals. His team’s work resulted in a report entitled “A Promise to Learn – A Commitment to Act: Improving the Safety of Patients in England.”1 The purpose of the consultative visit and resulting series of recommendations was to identify and recommend solutions to ailments and limitations in the current NHS.

Many of the “current state” ailments outlined in Dr. Berwick’s report would not sound terribly novel or unfamiliar to most U.S. healthcare systems. The report listed problems with:

  • Systems-procedures-conditions-environments-constraints that lead people to make bad or incorrect decisions;
  • Incorrect priorities;
  • Not heeding warning signals about patient safety;
  • Diffusion of responsibility;
  • Lack of support for continuous improvement; and
  • Fear, which is “toxic to both safety and improvement.”

Dr. Berwick and his team made a number of recommendations to reshape priorities and resources, enhance the safety of the system, and rebuild the confidence of its customers (e.g., patients and caregivers).

The consultant group’s core message was simple and inspiring:

“The NHS in England can become the safest healthcare system in the world. It will require unified will, optimism, investment, and change. Everyone can and should help. And, it will require a culture firmly rooted in continual improvement. Rules, standards, regulations, and enforcement have a place in the pursuit of quality, but they pale in potential compared to the power of pervasive and constant learning.”

To achieve improvement, Dr. Berwick’s team recommended 10 guiding principles. Similar to The 10 Commandments, they offer a way of thinking, acting, and living—to make the healthcare industry a better place. These healthcare 10 commandments include the following:

    1. “The NHS should continually and forever reduce patient harm by embracing wholeheartedly an ethic of learning.” While we should all aspire to zero harm, the reality is that getting there will be a long and difficult goal, more than likely a goal of continual reduction. Defining harm is also more difficult than looking just at what meets the eye; because the qualitative “you know it when you see it” will likely never be embraced widely, we are left with quantitative and imperfect measures, such as hospital-acquired conditions (HACs) and patient safety indicators (PSIs). Despite the imperfection of current measures, the goal for continual reduction is laudable and necessary.
    2. “All leaders concerned with NHS healthcare—political, regulatory, governance, executive, clinical, and advocacy—should place quality of care in general, and patient safety in particular, at the top of their priorities for investment, inquiry, improvement, regular reporting, encouragement, and support.” As with anything, leadership sets the vision, mission, and values of an organization or system. Leadership will have to commit to placing patient safety at the top of the priority list, without sacrificing other priorities.
Many healthcare organizations equate transparency with marketing, where they tout their fanciest technology or latest innovation. And many also subscribe to the theory “if you’re gonna go bare, you better be buff” and only widely disseminate those metrics that make them appear superior.
  1. “Patients and their caregivers should be present, powerful, and involved at all levels of healthcare organizations, from the wards to the boards of trusts.” This directive is certainly ideal, but, realistically, it will take a while to develop a level of comfort from both the patients and the providers, because both are much more used to operating in parallel, with intermittent intersections. Involving patients in all organizational decision-making, and including the boards of trustees, will be prerequisite to true patient-caregiver-centered care.
  2. “Government, Health Education England, and NHS England should assure that sufficient staff are available to meet the NHS’ needs now and in the future. Healthcare organizations should ensure staff are present in appropriate numbers to provide safe care at all times and are well-supported." All healthcare organizations should be on a relentless pursuit to match workload and intensity to staffing, pursue work standardization and efficiency, and match work to human intellect. These are the founding tenets of Lean and Six Sigma and should be pursued for all disciplines, both clinical and non-clinical.
  3. “Mastery of quality and patient-safety sciences and practices should be part of initial preparation and lifelong education of all healthcare professionals, including managers and executives.” The U.S. has made great strides in incorporating at least a basic curriculum of quality and safety for most healthcare professionals, but we need to move the current level of understanding to the next level. We need to ensure that all healthcare professionals have at least a basic understanding of the fundamental principles.
  4. “The NHS should become a learning organization. Its leaders should create and support the capability for learning, and therefore change, at scale within the NHS.” Healthcare organizations should not just be willing to learn from individual and system opportunities; they should be eager to learn. Quality and safety missions should uniformly extend into educational and research missions in all organizations, to enhance learning opportunities and create best practice.
  5. “Transparency should be complete, timely, and unequivocal. All data on quality and safety, whether assembled by government, organizations, or professional societies, should be shared in a timely fashion with all parties who want it, including, in accessible form, with the public.” Many healthcare organizations equate transparency with marketing, where they tout their fanciest technology or latest innovation. And many also subscribe to the theory “if you’re gonna go bare, you better be buff” and only widely disseminate those metrics that make them appear superior. We all need to be more transparent across the board, because going “bare” can actually stimulate improvements more quickly and reliably than they would otherwise occur. Organizational metrics really should not belong to the organization; they should belong to the patients who created the metrics. As such, full transparency of organizational performance (on all the domains of quality) should be an organizational and patient expectation.
  6. “All organizations should seek out the patient and caregiver voice as an essential asset in monitoring the safety and quality of care.” Organizations should seek out patient-caregiver feedback and should be eager to learn from their words. Most other industries regularly and routinely seek out customer feedback to improve upon their products and services; some even pay customers for a chance to hear what they have to say. Too often, the theme from disgruntled patients is that no one is listening to them.
  7. “Supervisory and regulatory systems should be simple and clear. They should avoid diffusion of responsibility. They should be respectful of the goodwill and sound intention of the vast majority of staff. All incentives should point in the same direction.”
  8. U.S. regulatory agencies have an incredible amount of simplification to accomplish, along with a need to align incentives for the betterment of the patient. “We support responsive regulation of organizations, with a hierarchy of responses. Recourse to criminal sanctions should be extremely rare, and should function primarily as a deterrent to willful or reckless neglect or mistreatment.”

This commandment acknowledges the rarity of willful misconduct, by organizations and providers, and calls for a simplification of the governance needed for such rare events and situations.

In Sum As with The 10 Commandments, these guiding principles can help transform the way we in the healthcare industry think, act, and live—and put us on the road to making it a better place.


  1. National Advisory Group on the Safety of Patients in England. A promise to learn a commitment to act: improving the safety of patients in England. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/226703/Berwick_Report.pdf. Accessed September 21, 2013.

Dr. Scheurer is a hospitalist and chief quality officer at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. She is physician editor of The Hospitalist. Email her at scheured@musc.edu.

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