A Crash Course in Patient Safety: 6 Things New Nurses Need to Know

Illustrated hospital showing different patient situations

Each year, an astounding number of patients die as a result of medical errors endured in hospitals. In fact, the average number of premature deaths caused by preventable medical errors is anywhere from 210,000 to more than 400,000 per year, according to a study by Patient Safety America. This makes it the third-leading cause of death in the U.S. behind heart disease and cancer!

The statistics are alarming and explain the recent initiatives around general patient safety and well-developed patient safety initiatives. Being up-to-speed on these issues is a must for any new nurse entering the field.

Keep reading for an overview on patient safety and its importance. You’ll also receive some important insight from experts in the field as you prepare to embark on your own nursing journey.

What is patient safety?

Patient safety has become a sort of buzzword in the medical community. As a nurse or soon-to-be nurse, it’s important you know what it entails, the role you play and how to prepare yourself to be the best patient safety advocate you can be.

The purpose of patient safety initiatives is to prevent medical errors that can lead to undesirable (sometimes fatal) outcomes from patients. “I define it as conscientious, vigilant patient care that provides for the best likely outcomes,” says Nick Angelis, CRNA, MSN and author.

Defining what it exactly entails is a bit complex, as a patient’s overall safety is in the hands of so many individuals in different departments. More than just their actual providers and nurses, those interacting with their health records, working in medical coding and others all have an impact on the overall safety of a patient.

As a nurse, you will play a vital role in your patients’ safety, as you are often their most present healthcare provider. You might be the first person to hear of an issue or pain your patient is experiencing – you may even be the only person they tell.

Read on to see what other nurses and medical professionals think you should know about patient safety.

6 Things nurses should know about patient safety

You want to enter or solidify your new career knowing what to expect when it comes to patient safety and what is going to be expected of you. Learn from the experts who have gone before you so you are properly equipped to keep your patients safe.

1. You need to be an active listener

Active listening is one of the top skills nurses will need, according to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). This means you’ll need to give your full attention to what your patients are saying and ask questions to ensure you understand their comments and concerns.

“It’s important that nurses be active listeners who seek to understand the patient’s point of view and, together with the rest of the care team, actively engage the patient in decision-making,” says Dr. William Maples, executive director of the Institute for Healthcare Excellence, LLC and CMO at Professional Research Corporation.

2. Critical thinking is key

Thinking about possible outcomes and considering the best course of action is essential to both the nursing career and patient safety. Thinking critically and making rational decisions under pressure is an essential part of your job as a nurse.

"Part of patient safety is to think about what could go wrong."

“Part of patient safety is to think about what could go wrong,” says Angelis. “Does the softer, taller mattress ordered for a patient make it more likely they'll fall out of bed? Or does giving so many IV antibiotics at 9:00 a.m. risk cardiac heart failure on a fragile patient?”

You’ll rarely encounter two identical patient scenarios, which is why every situation needs to be uniquely assessed. The smallest decision could result in severe consequences, so it’s crucial to be confident in your knowledge and training.

3. You are the patient’s advocate

As the healthcare professional who typically spends the most time with the patient, it’s your job to pay attention. You must be aware of ways in which you can advocate for the patient’s needs and concerns.

“The best advice I can give to nurses is to realize that the role of being your patient’s advocate for patient safety is most important,” says nurse educator Kelly Moed, MSN. She believes patient advocacy should be top-of-mind during every minute you’re on duty as a nurse.

4. You MUST report if things do go awry

Nobody wants to be a tattletale, but it’s extremely important to report any errors you might witness – even if you’re the one at fault. Even the smallest mix-up can have detrimental outcomes, which is why this is a vital part of patient safety.

“Recognizing and reporting situations such as system failure, human error, drug reactions and breach in infection control can keep your current patient safe and keep future patients safe from adverse events or errors,” says Moed.

5. Never disregard prevention measures

“A nurse can help prevent serious injury or death to patients by actively participating in procedures and programs which are in place to avoid hospital acquired conditions and adverse events,” says Moed.

Examples of preventive procedures are hand washing, sterilizing tools and surgical checklists. These measures are put in place for a reason, so it’s critical you follow them religiously – no matter how tedious they may seem.

6. Teamwork is essential

“Nurses and the entire care team must also commit themselves to excellence in teamwork,” Dr. Maples says. With so many different members in a healthcare team, everyone must band together to ensure exceptional patient safety.

"In my experience, medical units with higher teamwork scores have higher HCAHPS scores & lower medical errors."

As a nurse, it’s crucial to practice effective communication habits with other healthcare professionals. Interacting with various medical personnel and handing off patients to other nurses in between shifts can open the door to miscommunication and mishaps.

“In my experience, medical units with higher teamwork scores have higher HCAHPS scores and lower medical errors,” Dr. Maples adds.

Feeling fully prepared

It’s no secret that patient safety initiatives should be taken seriously by every member of a healthcare team. Even though you may not be the one prescribing medication or performing surgery, nurses play a large role in ensuring patient safety is met.

Now that you know a bit more of what to expect when it comes to ensuring patient safety, you may be seeking other ways to feel more prepared for your new nursing career. Check out our article: What I Wish Someone Told Me Before Becoming an RN.


Megan Ruesink

Megan is a freelance writer for Collegis education who writes student-focused articles on behalf of Rasmussen College. She hopes to engage and intrigue current and potential students.


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