Fundamentals of Highly Reliable Organizations Could Benefit Hospitalists


Reliability. This sounds like a decent trait. Who wouldn’t want to be described as “reliable”? It sounds reputable whether you’re a person, a car, or a dishwasher. So how does one become or emulate the trait of being reliable, one who is predictable, punctua—“reproducible,” if you will?

Organizational reliability has received a fair bit of press these days. The industries that have come to embrace reliability concepts are those in which failure is easy to come by, and those in which failure is likely to be catastrophic if it occurs. In the medical industry, failure occurs to people, not widgets or machines, so by definition it tends to be catastrophic. These failures generally come in three flavors:

What they and others have found in their research of highly reliable organizations is not that they have failure-free operations, but that they continuously and “mindfully” think about how to be failure-free. Inattention and complacency are the biggest threats to reliability.
  • The expected fails to occur (i.e. a patient with pneumonia does not receive their antibiotics on time);
  • The unexpected occurs (i.e. a patient falls and breaks their hip); or
  • The unexpected was not previously thought of (i.e. low-risk patient has a PEA arrest).

A fair bit of research has been done on how organizations can become more reliable. In their book “Managing the Unexpected: Assuring High Performance in an Age of Complexity,”1 Karl Weick and Kathleen Sutcliffe studied firefighting, workers on aircraft carriers, and nuclear power plant employees. They all have in common the fundamental similarity that failure in their workplace is catastrophically dangerous, and that they must continuously strive to reduce the risk and/or mitigate effectively. The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) specifically studied, through case studies and site visits, how some healthcare organizations have achieved some success in the different domains of reliability.2

What both studies found is that there are five prerequisites that, if done well, lead to an organizational “state of mindfulness.” What they and others have found in their research of highly reliable organizations (HROs) is not that they have failure-free operations, but that they continuously and “mindfully” think about how to be failure-free. Inattention and complacency are the biggest threats to reliability.

The Fundamentals

The first prerequisite is sensitivity to operations. This refers to actively seeking information on how things actually are working, instead of how they are supposed to be working. It is being acutely aware of all operations, including the smallest details: Does the patient have an armband on? Is the nurse washing their hands? Is the whiteboard information correct? Is the bed alarm enabled? It is the state of mind when everyone knows how things should work, look, feel, sound, and can recognize when something is out of bounds.

The next prerequisite is a preoccupation with failure. This refers to a system in which failure and near-misses are completely transparent, and openly and honestly discussed (without inciting individual blame or punitive action), and learned from communally. This “group thought” continually reaffirms the fact that systems, and everyone in them, are completely fallible to errors. It is the complete opposite of inattention and complacency. It is continuously asking “What can go wrong, how can it go wrong, when will it go wrong, and how can I stop it?”

The next prerequisite is reluctance to oversimplify. This does not imply that simplicity is bad, but that oversimplicity is lethal. It forces people and organizations to avoid shortcuts and to not rely on simplistic explanations for situations that need to be complicated. Think of this as making a complicated soufflé; if you leave out a step or an ingredient, the product will be far from a soufflé.

The next prerequisite is deference to expertise. This principle recognizes that authority and/or rank are not equivalent to expertise. This assumes that people and organizations are willing and able to defer decision-making to the person who will make the best decision, not to who ranks highest in the organizational chart. A junior hospitalist might be much more likely to make a good decision on building a new order set than the hospitalist director is.

The last prerequisite is resilience. Webster’s defines resilience as “the capability of a strained body to recover its size and shape after deformation caused especially by compressive stress … an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.” The “compressive stresses” and “misfortune or change” can present in a number of different ways, including bad patient outcomes, bad national press, or bad hospital rankings. A good HRO is not one that does not experience unexpected events, but is one that is not disabled by them. They routinely train and practice for worst-case scenarios. It is easy to “audit” resilience by looking at the organizational response to unexpected events. Are they handled with grace, ease, and speed, or with panic, anxiety, and ongoing uncertainty? Resilience involves adequately functioning despite adversity, recovering well, and learning from the experience.

Take-Home Message

The first three principles relate to how organizations can anticipate and reduce the risk of failure; the last two principles relate to how organizations mitigate the extent or severity of failure when it occurs. Together, they create the state of mindfulness, in which all senses are open and alert for signs of aberrations in the system, and where there is continuous learning of how to make the system function better.

What does this mean for a hospitalist to function in an HRO? Most hospitalists are on the front lines, where they routinely see where and how things can fail. They need to resist the urge to become complacent and remain continuously alert to signals that the system is not functioning for the safety of the patient. And when things do go awry, they need to be part of the resilience plan, to work with their teams to swiftly and effectively mitigate ongoing risks, and defer decision to expertise and not necessarily authority.

It also requires that each of us work within multidisciplinary teams in which all members add to the “state of mindfulness,” including the patient and their families (who very often note “aberrancies” before anyone else does). Think of your hospital as ascribed by Gordon Bethune, the former CEO of Continental Airlines. When asked why all employees received a bonus for on-time departure (instead of only employees on the front line), he held up his wristwatch and said, “What part of this watch don’t you think we need?”

Hospitalists can be powerful motivators for a culture change that empowers all hospital employees to be engaged in anticipating and managing failures—just by being mindful. This is a great place to start.

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.


  1. Weick KE, Sutcliffe KM. Managing the unexpected: Resilient performance in an age of uncertainty, 2nd ed. 2007: Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons Inc.
  2. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Becoming a high reliability organization: operational advice for hospital leaders. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality website. Available at: http://www.ahrq.gov/qual/hroadvice/. Accessed Dec. 10, 2012.

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