Interview Series: Helen Hughes, Chief Executive, Patient Safety Learning

To celebrate the first-ever World Patient Safety Day (17th September 2019), HTN asked Helen Hughes, the chief executive of charity Patient Safety Learning, a few questions.

WHO has today launched the first ever global campaign to create awareness of patient safety and urge people to show their commitment to making healthcare safer. In this interview we ask Helen a few questions about patient safety and the positive work Patient Safety Learning is doing.

The organisation recently launched A Blueprint for Action which sets out the action needed to progress towards a patient-safe future. Soon they will launch the hub, a platform and community focusing on shared learning around patient safety, problems, best practice, experiences and knowledge.

Could you tell me a bit about yourself and your organisation?

I’ve worked in healthcare on and off since the mid 80’s and I’ve always been interested in patient safety and governance. My career switched to patient safety when I read Liam Donaldson’s Organisation with a Memory report on patient safety in 2001, when it said healthcare is not really learning as much as it needs to, to improve patient safety and quality of care. A lot of what was written in that report is still relevant now and there is still so much that needs to be done.

I have a real passion for patient safety and I have worked for a multitude of different organisations including the World Health Organisation. When I came back to a UK role, I worked in various social justice organisations including being chief executive of the equality and rights commission and worked at the parliamentary health ombudsman, so my passion for patient safety is clear and well documented.

The charity that I helped set up is called ‘Patient Safety Learning’ and the idea for it was conceived fairly recently in 2016, which then started early in 2017, and was registered as a charity in November 2018. We are impatient for change and show a great deal of ambition with our small but very dedicated team of staff. We want to support action and improvement; we want to make a difference by bringing all the research and issues surrounding patient safety into one place.

What is the most significant achievement for your organisation in the past 12 months?

There needs to be a resurgence of commitment to patient safety right the way through the system. NHS Improvement has just issued a new action strategy on patient safety, but there’s more that should feature and our Blueprint is complimentary to that. We’d really like decision and policy makers to read our Blueprint and implement some of our recommendations. I would love the hub to become a real repository that is trusted, evidence based, interesting and encouraging for people to use. The average length of time people are spending on the hub is 10 minutes, so people are actually searching and finding information.

At a recent presentation, people were eager to register for it, and it shows us we are onto something really impactful. The value is definitely there and the interest is not limited to a UK audience; it is seeping out to an international audience. You don’t put borders on knowledge, it should be shared where it is needed. 

Can you tell me a bit about A Blueprint for Action, its aims and objectives?

The thinking behind the Blueprint was kicked off at our first annual conference in September 2018 with a green paper report outlining a patient safe future. Our focus is not just the terrible stories and tragedies, but also concentrating on the positives, moving forward and asking ‘what does a patient safe future look like?’ We put the Blueprint out into the public domain to engage with people and also find out what could be improved upon. It’s about shared learning and insight and presenting that back; presenting the Blueprint at conferences and collecting a range of views.

In terms of the Blueprint, what are the key themes and learnings?

What we think is one of the challenges in healthcare is that there’s no one leader who brings everyone together. Everyone is very ambitious about safety, but no one is combining to create one system. Something we propose is a mechanism to bring people together, making sure people are aligned, motivated and supported; everyone’s learning from knowledge. It is an opportunity as a charity to shake the tree.

There’s a lot of people doing some excellent work on patient safety, our approach has been identifying underlying themes where more action is needed; six core principles – shared learning, leadership, professionalising patient safety, patient engagement, data and insight, and culture. Patient safety is one of the core purposes of healthcare.

What problems and challenges are you aiming to tackle?

Patient safety has to be a core to how health and social care operates, core to policy, delivery, commissioning and core to its engagement and there’s much more that needs to be done. We have undoubtedly made progress but there are still challenges. We need to provide more transparency with the community regarding patient safety and to learn from not just unsafe practice but also good practice. A core part of patient safety is collaborating with patients; patients can contribute to their own safety if they are capable of doing so, but we are also designing safety around the patient. We should invite clinicians to highlight areas where we can improve and then respond to their knowledge. We created the hub in order to allow all those who work within patient safety to access information that they require. We encourage those that use the hub to inform others of where to find patient safety information.

What do you think is the biggest technology challenge in terms of patient safety?

There has been ambition in the NHS for many years but it has never been fully realised, and part of what we are doing is saying that we will develop that technology with patient safety managers, clinicians, patients, information knowledge specialists and information managers. We’ll design the framework and we will invite people to engage in communities to curate and then be able to widely share that knowledge. We are essentially creating a knowledge network from people who are committed, passionate and knowledgeable.

I did a presentation a few months ago to share with an audience of clinicians and those in leadership roles to raise awareness of issues around patient safety perspectives regarding a lack of regulation of new technology. We have and will continue to work with ORCHA to ask how to shape patient safety in regards to conflicting information in new technology applications. Are we actually thinking about patient safety when we launch new technologies? We know there are incredible benefits to emerging healthcare technology, but are we considering the unintended consequences? Patients may not use technology correctly or even at all. There is no such thing as a generic patient; many have co-morbidities. Are we sure that the technology can be applied safely by clinicians and used properly by patients?

We need to shape ideas, in particular with how data is used with artificial intelligence in healthcare technology, and we are working with ORCHA to try to bring awareness and regulation to patient safety within technology and applications. I have previously worked with Neil Jones, Assistant Director of Patient Safety and Human Factors at Liverpool & Broadgreen Hospital, who has shown excellent innovation with patient safety. We should learn what is good about patient safety and apply those lessons in the future.

What advice would you give to other organisations or professionals?

There are a horrible number of avoidable deaths, let’s learn from the good methods of patient safety; the innovation, and not just focus on the bad. Let’s find the people that are doing excellent work in patient safety and learn from that. Those clinicians and teams that are doing excellent work need to share their approach and they have the opportunity to do so with the hub. Patient safety is about inspiring, supporting and changing behaviour.