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Patient Safety as a priority

In the late 90’s, the publication of To err is human 1 generated global awareness about patient safety. A publication from British NHS: An organisation with a memory 2 also highlighted the magnitude of the problem in the United Kingdom. Both reports recognized that error was a routine during the delivery of healthcare and stressed that healthcare organizations were having a poor performance to tackle this problem; some other risk-prone industries like aviation seemed much more advanced on their efforts, and the need of cultural change of healthcare organizations was stated.

Since then, a global movement has grown around patient safety, with the involvement of important organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO), the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) and the Organisation for Economic Development (OECD).

– In 2004 the WHO launched the World Alliance for Patient Safety, a working partnership between WHO and external experts, with the aim of facilitate the development of patient safety policy and practices in Member States. This work led, on subsequent years, to the launching of Global Patient Safety Challenges, each of them identifying a major risk for patient safety and setting an agenda for research and improvement, developing frontline interventions, and partnering with countries to disseminate and implement the interventions. Thus far, the three Global Patient Safety Challenges were: 

  • Clean Care is Safer Care (2005); with the goal of reducing health care-associated infection, by focusing on improved hand hygiene.
  • Safe Surgery Saves Lives (2008); dedicated to reducing risks associated with surgery.
  • Medication Without Harm (2017); with the aim of reducing the level of severe, avoidable harm related to medications globally by 50% over five years.

– Another remarkable initiative from WHO was Patients for Patient Safety program, led by individuals who had suffered harm from health care or by their family members.

– The World Patient Safety Day, which is marked every year on 17 September, was established by the 72nd World Health Assembly in May 2019 highlights a global patient safety priority.  In 2020 the COVID-19 pandemic stressed the importance of protecting those who care, therefore the slogan was “Safe healthcare providers, safe patients”. The Charter Health Worker Safety: A Priority for Patient Safety 3 was presented, calling for action to ensure health worker safety and patient safety. One of the main topics is dedicated to the healthcare workers mental health and psychological wellbeing.

– In August 2021 the Global Patient Safety Action Plan 2021–2030 -Towards eliminating avoidable harm in health care was launched, setting out a vision of a “world in which no patient is harmed in healthcare, and everyone receives safe and respectful care, every time, everywhere” and a goal of achieving the maximum possible reduction in avoidable harm because of unsafe care. 

– Patient safety is central to the implementation of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), especially SDG3 (“Ensure healthy lives and promote wellbeing for all at all ages”) and achievement of universal health coverage (target 3.8).

Patient safety as a priority in Europe

In European countries, significant improvements to provide safer care for patients have been introduced in health systems seeking to ensure that procedures and treatments are being performed correctly and in a timely and effective way. Although the organisation of health systems and the delivery of healthcare remain a national competence, the EU plays an increasingly important complementary and supporting role in health and the impact of its actions on policies, healthcare delivery, and patient safety is highly significant. The EU has made legislation, recommendations, and funded projects to assure patient safety and mutual sharing and learning between Member States.


  1. Institute of Medicine. To err is human: Building a Safer Health System. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press; 2000. 650 p. 
  2. Donaldson L. An organisation with a memory: Report of an Expert Group on Learning from Adverse Events in the NHS Chaired by the Chief Medical Officer. London: The Stationery Office; 2000. 
  3. Organization WH. Charter: health worker safety: a priority for patient safety. Gevena: World Health Organization; 2020.

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