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  • Women in patient safety: Interview with Helen Hughes

    PatientSafetyLearning Team
    Article information
    • UK
    • Interviews and reflections
    • New
    • Everyone


    Helen Hughes, Chief Executive of Patient Safety Learning, highlights the importance of organisational patient safety standards, creating a culture that is free from fear and collaborating with both patients and frontline staff.



    Questions & Answers

    Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

    I’m Chief Executive of Patient Safety Learning, a recently formed charity and independent voice for improving patient safety. 

    My rather unconventional career has always been motivated by my passion for healthcare improvement, patient safety and social justice. As Finance Director, Executive Director and Chief Executive, I have held leadership roles in the NHS, the National Patient Safety Agency (the world’s first national agency for patient safety, sadly closed down as part of austerity savings), the World Health Organization, Equality and Human Rights Commission, Parliamentary & Health Service Ombudsman and Charity Commission. I am Chair of Solace Women’s Aid, a charity that support survivors of domestic violence and sexual abuse. 

    My passion is to reduce harm in healthcare. 

    I love trains, cats, music, slow running and long walks.

    How long have you been in post?

    I can’t believe how the time has flown, 2 years. We became a charity in November 2018.

    Can you tell us more about what you do and the purpose of your role?

    Patient Safety Learning harnesses the knowledge, enthusiasm and commitment of healthcare organisations, professionals and patients for system-wide change. We believe that patient safety is not just another priority: it is part of the purpose of healthcare. Patient safety should not be negotiable.

    Our report, A Blueprint for Action, sets out the action needed to progress towards the patient-safe future. Underpinned by systemic analysis and evidence, it proposes practical actions to address the six foundations of safer care for patients. A summary is available here.

    As Chief Executive, I support the Board in strategic planning, resourcing and delivering our priorities.

    Our two main priorities currently reflect two foundations for patient safety: sharing learning and professionalising patient safety.

    Sharing learning

    the hub is an online platform and community for people to share learning about patient safety problems, experiences and solutions. Designed with input from patient safety professionals, clinicians and patients, the hub offers a powerful combination of tools, resources, stories, ideas, case studies and good practice to anyone who wants to make care safer for patients. Its communities of interest give people a safe place to discuss patient safety issues or concerns. the hub is free of charge for use by everyone: clinicians, patients, managers, policy makers, regulators, researchers and members of the public. Please join and #share4safety.

    Professionalising patient safety

    Currently, there are no organisational standards for patient safety, making it difficult for organisations to set goals and design the improvement programmes required. We are developing organisational standards for patient safety with criteria for evaluating whether these have been met and an evidence base for review.

    Talk us through a typical day

    There is no typical day, which is very interesting. Broadly, my work breaks down into: 

    • Driving home the six foundations of safer care through meeting with opinion formers, leaders and campaigners, and promoting through social media. Mainly in the UK, but increasingly our partnerships are international.
    • Contributing to the hub and helping establish patient safety as a social movement for change, especially encouraging stories from frontline staff and patients and sharing innovation and improvement initiatives.
    • Creating organisational patient safety standards. Shockingly, these currently don’t exist, and we think they are essential to ensure that organisations embed patient safety as a core purpose.
    • Sourcing funding for our work. We are committed to the hub being free for all; to share knowledge to the benefit of organisations, leaders, patients, researchers. We receive no funding from the NHS.
    • Supporting our amazing staff and volunteers.

    What do you think are the most effective ways to engage staff in patient safety?

    Staff are an infinite source of wisdom and insight into what needs to be improved. Give staff a voice, encourage them to share their experience of unsafe care and opportunities for improvement. Ensure that they are engaged in developing actions to reduce the risk of future harm. Give them confidence that its worth their while to report concerns and share ideas, that they will be listened to and action taken. Do not blame them when things go wrong, when the system they work in is not safe. 

    How should patient safety leaders be engaging with patients?

    Patients and the safety of their care is at the heart of health and social care. We should engage with patients at the point of care, if things go wrong, in advocating for and designing safer care. This is core to our thinking at Patient Safety Learning. We are working with patient campaigners to design patient engagement and co-production through, and with, the World Health Organisation. the hub contains many resources to support patient engagement, including a recent blog by Jo Hughes, one of a series we have commissioned – ‘When healthcare harms, who cares?’

    What three words best describe a culture that promotes patient safety?

    Fair. Open. Kind.

    What are the three main barriers to patient safety?

    Blame. Fear. Lack of leadership.

    What do you think needs to stop, start and continue when it comes to patient safety?

    Stop: The blame and fear culture. It’s toxic. Much has been written about it and whistleblowers are still living this when they challenge weak leaders who are not doing enough for patient safety.

    Start: Putting patient safety at the core of health and social care. Take action, don’t just talk. Share learning within and across organisations. 

    Continue: Listening to staff and patients. But show that they have been heard. Take action and make improvement as a consequence.

    Can you share an example or anecdote about how your work has had a positive impact on patient safety?

    A very current one is working with and supporting those who are highlighting the awful pain that many women are experiencing in having hysteroscopies without being properly advised or having pain relief. We are sourcing stories of personal experience to inform the campaign for safer care. Please share and contribute here.

    What are you passionate about?

    Patient safety, reducing harm. Systems thinking with human factors. Co-production with patients and staff.

    If you could jump to 2050, in an ideal world, what would healthcare look like?

    We’ve described a Patient Safe Future in our Blueprint for Action. I hope it doesn’t take us to 2050 to get there. 

    • In a patient-safe future, we will see patient safety as part of the purpose of health and social care (not just one priority of many).
    • Organisations take responsibility for patient safety and treat it as a systems issue, owned by their leaders, patient safety experts, all clinicians and support staff.
    • Health and social care organisations measure how safe they are so they can take corrective action. 
    • Organisations establish decision-making processes that demand explicit, evidence-based assessment of the impact on patient safety, selecting the option that offers the safest outcome for patients or explaining why.
    • Health and social care initiatives explicitly include a positive impact on patient safety as an objective. They also include preventive actions to mitigate risks to patient safety. 
    • Strategies for patient safety are woven through every aspect of any plan for health or social care; a plan for health or social care is a plan for patient safety.

    Can you tell us about a woman who has inspired you when it comes to patient safety?

    Sue Sheridan is a passionate campaigner for safer care. Working in partnership with the healthcare system in the US, Sue helped set up Parents of Infants and Children with Kernicterus after her son experienced life-altering brain damage. PICK has successfully campaigned for improvements so that babies with jaundice receive the care they need to prevent brain damage. I know Sue through her inspiring leadership of the Patients for Patient Safety Programme at WHO. Sue taught me to listen to the wisdom of patients and that telling their stories is a powerful motivator for change. And ultimately if we’re successful in patient safety we will reduce harm.

    What advice do you have for young females who are just starting out in their careers, whether in the healthcare industry or otherwise?

    Be the best you can and follow your passion. Help others to excel and you’ll be helping yourself. 

    Go for it!




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