Patient Safety in the US and UK, Part I: The Doctors

By  |  September 4, 2011 |  10 

A little more than a decade ago, the patient safety movement hit both the United States and the United Kingdom like twin avalanches. In both countries, high profile cases of medical mistakes led to growing anxiety, and early research outlined the vast scope of the problem and identified some solutions. All this was prelude to two key reports published in 2000 (the Institute of Medicine’s To Err is Human in the US, and An Organisation with a Memory in the UK), which blended data and angst to galvanize movements in both countries.

When an avalanche strikes, its path is determined by the underlying terrain. So too have the structures and culture of the US and UK systems influenced their responses to the harrowing recognition that patients are often harmed while receiving healthcare.

In this blog, I’ll highlight some of the key differences in the role of physicians—in particular, their engagement in the safety enterprise as both clinicians and researchers—that I’ve noticed in the two countries. In my next post, I’ll discuss how the centralized vs. decentralized instincts of the two healthcare systems have influenced the policy responses and their effectiveness.

First Observation: Physician Engagement in Safety Seems Greater in the US, at Least in Top Hospitals

Whether we like it or not, physicians’ attitudes set the agenda on issues like quality and patient safety. This is definitely true in the US and, perhaps to a slightly lesser degree, in the UK, where professional managers hold more of the chips. But even in Great Britain, the level of physician buy-in is critical. And my sense is that American physicians have engaged somewhat more strongly with the safety agenda.

Before amplifying this observation, let me immediately qualify it. When it comes to physician engagement in anything other than direct clinical practice and the business of medicine, the US is far more bimodal than the UK. So when I refer to high levels of US physician buy-in, I’m referring to those American hospitals that have either employed physicians (i.e., the VA, many hospitals with hospitalists) or docs who are strongly linked to their organizations (i.e., Mayo and Cleveland Clinics, Kaiser Permanente, Geisinger, most academic health centers). As for independent physicians and those in small group practices? Not so much.

In other words, my point of reference here is what happens in places like UCSF and Kaiser versus what happens in high-quality English hospitals.

Why might safety engagement among physicians be spottier in the UK? Interestingly, I think it’s partly related to the differences in the two countries’ malpractice systems. Here’s why:

Doctors in the UK don’t worry much about being sued for malpractice. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a malpractice issue here, but rather that most lawsuits are directed against the Trusts (the hospital or the primary care practices), whose administrators worry quite a bit. But the docs are usually, happily, left out of it.

In the US, of course, every physician frets about being sued: a recent study found that nearly all American physicians will be sued at least once during their careers, and nearly 20% of high-risk specialists like neurosurgeons are sued each year. So when the IOM report was published, the instinctive response of US physicians to the idea of talking about medical mistakes was nearly Pavlovian: Mistakes = Malpractice = I-Don’t-Wanna-Talk-About-It.

But then came the notion of systems thinking and the Swiss cheese model. “No, we’re not talking about individual fault,” went the mantra. “We’re looking at dysfunctional systems.” Many American physicians were greatly relieved, and some dove into the safety pool. In the UK, in contrast, the patient safety movement was seen by many doctors as yet another of the National Health Service’s admonitions to do better, just one more beat of an oft-struck drum. I think this combination of US physicians embracing this new way of approaching mistakes and UK physicians seeing the patient safety movement as another occasion for the bureaucracy to pressure them to follow another set of rules led to a more enthusiastic reception on the left side of the Atlantic.

Second Observation: Trainees Here Also Seem Less Smitten With Patient Safety

While engaging practicing doctors is vital, so too is capturing the hearts and minds of the next generation. There is a structural issue in the UK that influences the ability to educate residents in crosscutting areas such as patient safety.

In the US, kids go to four years of college, then to medical school for four more years. From there, they enter a residency in the specialty of their choice and, for some, additional fellowship training. Training programs are run by individual academic medical centers, such as NYU or Johns Hopkins, or smaller teaching hospitals. While in training, American residents work under the wing of a single program director and rotate through a limited set of training experiences, usually in 2-3 hospitals (I ran UCSF’s internal medicine residency in a former life, so I know this world well). Because the training director is responsible for the residents and can track them easily, he or she has the tools to create new curricular experiences in crosscutting areas like patient safety. At UCSF, for example, all our interns now have a two-week safety/quality rotation, during which they learn core principles and begin working on a project.

In the UK, students enter medical school right after high school, a 6-year experience that includes less liberal arts than American pre-meds get in their college years, a point I’ll return to later. (British kids also finish med school two years earlier with essentially no debt [versus the average US med school graduate, whose debt averages $158,000), so there are some real advantages to the British model.) After graduating, they enter a four year period of rotating residency experiences, and then a “registrar” program in a specialty (i.e., such as medicine plus a subspecialty, or surgery or pediatrics), which lasts for anywhere from 3-6 years. So far so good.

But registrars in the UK are assigned to a “deanery” (a regional organization with overall accountability for training) and can rotate through as many as half a dozen hospitals, particularly when they’re in large cities like London. (Think about doing your medicine residency in a “Philadelphia deanery,” with potential rotations in some combo of the Penn, Jefferson, Temple and Drexel academic centers or community affiliates and you’ll have a sense of the structure here.) This makes their experience more fragmented, with a lot of hopping from one clinical rotation to another, without the same degree of oversight or integration that a good US program enjoys. Nor do British residents tend to form strong bonds to individual clinical sites the way many do in the US. While all the deanery’s residents may get together for a unified regional curricular day once or twice a month, this structure makes it hard to deliver a core curriculum on a crosscutting topic like safety. And so, by and large, there isn’t one.

Third Observation: The Striking Difference in National Leadership in Patient Safety

Perhaps the biggest difference I’ve noticed is in the background of the leaders in safety research and policy. In the US, the vast majority of the leaders are physicians, most of them based in academia and still seeing patients part-time. In the UK, most of the prominent and highly published patient safety experts are PhDs—mainly in psychology and sociology.

How to explain this striking difference? I’m guessing it reflects several factors. The first is the US college-before-med school system, which allows kids with a social science intellectual sweet tooth to pursue their passion in college, yet still become physicians. Atul Gawande, for instance, has a Stanford degree in biology and political science, and then studied philosophy at Oxford. Johns Hopkins safety expert Peter Pronovost double majored in biology and philosophy at Fairfield University, and I majored in political science at Penn. One can’t really do this in Great Britain; kids here begin their professional education at age 17. In England, a student like me probably wouldn’t go to med school in the first place, and if he did, he wouldn’t have had much time to study politics during his university years.

Second, the US has a strong tradition of physicians receiving additional social and political training after their clinical years, through the Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholars and similar fellowship programs. In the UK, while many MDs pursue additional training in biomedical research, relatively few receive (or have access to) the kind of training that promotes leadership in safety or quality. Just as importantly, there isn’t an obvious pathway for physician-leaders in quality or safety research to be promoted, funded, or valued by their academic institutions, as they increasingly are in the States, and so there are few role models with this phenotype.

Don’t get me wrong: the social scientist perspective that these British safety experts have brought to the field has been crucial, and it is a joy hanging out with them on my sabbatical. Just read anything written by James Reason (such as this and this),

Prof. Charles Vincent

Charles Vincent’s wonderful safety book, or Mary Dixon-Wood’s superb ethnographic analysis of the Michigan checklist study and you’ll see how staggeringly insightful they are about healthcare generally and patient safety more specifically. I wish we had more folks like them in the US.

But this lack of clinician, particularly physician, engagement comes at a cost. In US institutions that have embraced patient safety, I see substantial synergy between those studying the field and the troops on the ground. From what I’ve seen of the UK, there is this fantastic research engine (I recently had the privilege of listening to the members of Charles Vincent’s research group at Imperial College present their projects, and the breadth and quality of this work could be matched by very few programs in the US), and there are good operations people struggling to improve safety on the wards. But these worlds seem to be engaged in parallel play.

Final Observation: It’s Somebody Else’s Problem

In my next post, I’ll talk about some of the benefits and downsides of the UK’s more centralized approach to safety and quality. One of the downsides is that safety doesn’t feel like something that clinicians, or clinical teams, design and implement, but rather a set of prescriptive guidelines and rules being handed down by branches of the National Health Service. There is a palpable feeling of resignation, sometimes bemused resignation—the sense that many of these guidelines don’t make much sense, and there’s not much that one can do about it. Of the several problems with an overly prescriptive, top-down approach, the lack of caregiver engagement it tends to promote is one of the most troubling. This is a major cautionary note for the US, since we are moving rapidly in this very direction. More on this next time.

* * *

As always, these thoughts reflect the research I’ve done during my two months in London, scores of conversations, several conferences, a handful of hospital rounds, and a number of delightful afternoons in pubs and coffee houses. With this limited database, my analyses are sure to be colored by my own biases and influenced by my limited exposures. I welcome any comments—particularly by UK locals—to set me straight.


  1. Sumeet Chadha September 4, 2011 at 7:27 pm - Reply

    Couldn’t agree more. Especially with the point about fragmentation of training in the UK resulting in a lack of consistent clinical supervision leading to poor clinical safety. This also leads to an attitude of “not my problem” in trainees who often spend only 4 months at any one hospital site during their rotation.

    The introduction of Modernizing Medical Careers (or “Mutilating Medical Careers” – depending upon your point of view) has only made the situation much worse. Supervision at deanery level is mainly administrative and cursory, a tick-boxing exercise rather than clinically centered. Safety issues in the clinical practice of an individual doctor are difficult to address and rectify when there are barely 6-8 weeks of direct contact with a senior clinician during the 4 month posting when leave, days-off and non-clinical educational days are taken into account.

    Managers responsible for safety are so far removed from the clinical reality that it is laughable. It is often an uphill task even for a senior clinician to get some action on a matter directly impacting on patient safety.

    I am a practicing consultant in Acute Internal Medicine at a busy tertiary hospital in the UK and have personally seen a deterioration in the commitment to patient safety at the trainee level because of the changes in the training system.

    Ultimately, the move in the UK to a consultant delivered service, especially in high risk acute and critical areas is what is keeping patient’s safe.

  2. Paul Levy September 6, 2011 at 2:39 am - Reply

    As always, a thoughtful article by Bob. Here are some comments in response, disagreeing with one aspect of his presentation:

  3. Menoalittle September 6, 2011 at 4:13 am - Reply


    There is one area in which the clinicians in the UK shouted out, whereas in the US, they suffer silently the disruptive work flows of CPOE devices. In the UK, at the Milton Keynes and the Royal Free, to name two, the clinicians in no uncertain terms demanded de-installation of a US company’s electronic care record device, declaring it “not fit for purpose”. The complaints about these devices are present, but stifled in the US.

    I commend the UK clinicians for taking a public stand on the matters of flawed and defective HIT devices.

    From the books you cite, the UK is very interested in learning from adverse events, especially from those caused by HIT; but in the US, adverse events caused by HIT are written off, declared “anecdotes” by the HIT cheerleaders such as ONCHIT’s recently retired chief. Thus, HIT devices are no better and are as unsafe now as they were one half decade ago.

    Best regards,


  4. S Woodward September 7, 2011 at 9:17 am - Reply

    I agree that largely the UK system has been over the last decade a perceived top down approach to patient safety. The NHS created a national approach which truly can influence across the whole system (the National Patient Safety Agency) which issued (along with others) alerts and guidance. It also set up one of the largest National databases on safety – the National Reporting and Learning System – which captures patient safety incidents from every NHS organisation in England and Wales. This is used to identify the priority areas for the guidance – so many clinicians are influencing the alerts but often indirectly by reporting. An alert is created with and by frontline clinicians – so robust attempts are made to make them meaningful. The NPSA also along with the NHS Institute and The Health Foundation designed and ran a campaign using social movement methods and bottom up approaches to change – Patient Safety First. However, as you may know the NPSA has been abolished and this function is transferring to the new and yet to be set up NHS Commissioning Board. One of the most fundamental aims of the NHS Commissioning Board has to be clinical engagement in safety.

  5. Kevin Stewart September 13, 2011 at 7:27 pm - Reply

    I’ve spent the last year trying to engage physicians in a national patient safety programme in the UK, and Bob’s blog reads like a pretty astute analysis of our situation to me. I’m not sure if it’s cause or effect of centralisation, but many physicians are disengaged from safety work seeing it still as “someone else’s problem”.
    It’s not all doom and gloom, though. Centralisation has brought us some benefits as well including the ability to standardise more readily and to work on initiatives which can only be done at scale, like NICE and the NRLS. Things are also changing with UK trainees (apart from the fact that they will in future emerge from Med school with debts approaching US levels). There are numerous examples around the country of trainees really getting involved in safety and quality initiatives, including work supported by the Royal Colleges, the Health Foundation, the BMJ group and Deaneries. Maybe they are just too British to tell everyone about it though!

  6. Heda September 24, 2011 at 1:20 am - Reply

    In Canada 98 percent of medical malpractice victims never get a penny.The CMPA has 2.9 billion dollars in assets that it can use to buy the best lawyers and experts.
    A portion of the CMPA is paid for by the public and most have no idea this is happening.
    But if you want to bring a lawsuit you will be funding it yourself and also paying if you lose.This is done to discourage patients from bring a lawsuit.
    Doctors in Canada have to be members of the CMPA or they cannot practice in Canada.
    Few CMPA members are found guilty of anything.
    Serious complaints brought to the College of Physician and Surgeons are often swept under the rug.A study in Ontario showed that 99 percent investigated in secret.that year.
    This also means that anything reported that would be consider illegal may not be investigate.
    IMO a doctor can do anything he wants to you without written or informed consent and claim the condition you are left in is a result of mental illness.Then you can be refused care from every hospital emergency room.This is the standard of care according to the College of Physicians and Surgeons.
    The goal is to squash complaints to make it look like we are getting competent and quality care and then no one knows that we are not because its so difficult to sue in Canada.
    I reported and infectious disease cover up and my complaints quickly squashed with no investigation.
    Patent safety is does not seem to be an issue in Canada and probably never will be IMO!!!

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  9. […] hospital-based physicians, after years of working in the NHS bureaucracy, have developed a kind of learned helplessness. Life as a GP is somewhat different. While they have to work under NHS policies (and, in this […]

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About the Author: Bob Wachter

Robert M. Wachter, MD is Professor and Interim Chairman of the Department of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, where he holds the Lynne and Marc Benioff Endowed Chair in Hospital Medicine. He is also Chief of the Division of Hospital Medicine. He has published 250 articles and 6 books in the fields of quality, safety, and health policy. He coined the term hospitalist” in a 1996 New England Journal of Medicine article and is past-president of the Society of Hospital Medicine. He is generally considered the academic leader of the hospitalist movement, the fastest growing specialty in the history of modern medicine. He is also a national leader in the fields of patient safety and healthcare quality. He is editor of AHRQ WebM&M, a case-based patient safety journal on the Web, and AHRQ Patient Safety Network, the leading federal patient safety portal. Together, the sites receive nearly one million unique visits each year. He received one of the 2004 John M. Eisenberg Awards, the nation’s top honor in patient safety and quality. He has been selected as one of the 50 most influential physician-executives in the U.S. by Modern Healthcare magazine for the past eight years, the only academic physician to achieve this distinction; in 2015 he was #1 on the list. He is a former chair of the American Board of Internal Medicine, and has served on the healthcare advisory boards of several companies, including Google. His 2015 book, The Digital Doctor: Hope, Hype, and Harm at the Dawn of Medicine’s Computer Age, was a New York Times science bestseller.


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