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Safety and medical practice – an opportunity for better outcomes

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We have all heard a lot about the important topic of safety in the workplace in recent years.

As doctors, we are used to treating patients who have been involved in accidents, including workplace accidents and mishaps. They range from minor trauma to catastrophic injuries. But, as medical professionals, we also need to remain vigilant about our own safety in the workplace.

After treating the often horrific results of workplace accidents, the last thing we want is to put ourselves, our staff, and our patients in the position where any of us might be victims of a preventable adverse event.

Hospitals, clinics and medical practices are inherently risky workplaces. Risks include communicable diseases, exposure to hazardous materials, needle stick and sharps injuries, violence and verbal aggression from patients and co-workers, to name just a few. Injuries can be physical or psychological.

Medical workplaces need to develop a culture of best practice when it comes to safety. This requires constant vigilance, and improvement wherever possible. The complex occupational health and safety laws that exist around the country give us a broad approach, but we know that every workplace is unique and requires its own specific procedures. We should also embrace new products and technology that can assist with safe practice.

Safe practice (for example, washing hands after every patient encounter) involves taking an active approach toward the safety of ourselves and those who work with us. In a fast-paced medical workplace this must involve appropriate supervision of less experienced staff. It also requires easily accessible, practicable policies and procedures to be in place. A systematic approach will give better outcomes – this is the responsibility of employers, supported by all in the workplace. It should not be left to human discretion or error. By then it can be too late.

Let’s face it, while implementation can be time consuming, safety ultimately saves money by reducing productive time lost, and leads to better outcomes for patients. All State health departments, hospitals and general practices have robust, often voluminous policies and procedures on workplace safety, but they need to be considered works in progress. We should not hesitate to flag a policy or procedure which we think needs to be improved. The frequent objection that “we’ve always done it that way” is not good enough when it comes to safety.

There is a great deal of data collected on workplace injuries. The Work Health and Safety Statistics Report – Incidence rate, published by Safe Work Australia, indicates that medical workplaces are not the most dangerous workplaces in the country, but they are not the safest either. And we can assume that many injuries go unreported due to factors such as time pressure, embarrassment or unwieldy reporting procedures. We should remember that incident reporting ensures that data is reliable and up-to-date. Data can’t change the fact that an injury has occurred, but it can assist in the development of policy and the allocation of resources to try and make sure it doesn’t happen again.

We should see safety in the medical workplace as an opportunity to improve, and to lead other staff by example. It should not become a witch hunt or a blame game.

Resources and education need to be allocated where necessary to ensure the best possible culture of safety is in place in every medical workplace. Cost should never impede safe practice. When implemented well, good workplace safety improves medical outcomes and ensures a long and healthy medical career.