‘Work as done’
Because healthcare is constantly evolving and complex, by looking more closely at everyday work and finding out what actually happens, it allows an understanding of what it is, that frontline clinicians do to ensure successful outcomes. This is termed as looking at 'work as done' and informs us about the nuances, the adjustments, the compromises, the workarounds, the actions and the decision making that is taken to meet the needs of the patients they are caring for.
‘Work as done’ is a combination of expertise, clinical decisions, experience and tacit knowledge. It is because clinicians are flexible and can vary their performance that allows the system to function albeit with acceptable or adverse outcomes. As healthcare is intractable (not easily controlled), performance adjustments are vital.
Things often go well because obstetricians make sensible adjustments in response to the situations to ensure safety, often within a highly pressurised environment. These adaptations and performance variables, under complex circumstances, are not well understood.
Combining the concepts of capability mindfulness, positive deviance and resilience engineering as the principles of safety-II and understanding the 'work as done' and the performance variability of obstetricians’ (that results in good or successful outcomes), may bring insights that can be used to help build adaptive capacities and capabilities in obstetricians when working in unpredictable and unanticipated stressful clinical environments.
Compassion against a backdrop of complexity
My first encounter with an obstetrician was over 21 years ago when I was pregnant with my first baby. The attention and kindness that I received by the obstetrician and his team were incredible; I was cared for with gentleness and understanding.
He spoke to me with compassion, and in moments of delivering uncertain news, he placed his hand on my shoulder, showing his empathy for my circumstances. I saw him regularly until it was time for my baby to be born, twelve weeks early. This experience, although very traumatic, opened my eyes to a caring profession that surpassed any expectation that I could ever have imagined.
When I came to work at the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists nearly seven years ago, I had the privilege of witnessing more of these encounters. I visited maternity units, listening and watching obstetricians and their colleagues work tirelessly for women and their babies against a backdrop of complexity and variation. Intrigued by this, I decided to pursue a Master’s degree in Patient Safety. I wanted to understand what it was that gave obstetricians this skill; to work effectively while maintaining a constant awareness of situations, identifying and managing emergencies and providing day-to-day care, all at the same time.
Proactive safety management
My dissertation (under the supervision of Professor Suzette Woodward) focused on obstetricians’ use of proactive safety management concepts (termed Safety-II). Taking a safety-II approach includes looking at 'work as done’ . These are the adjustments, compromises, workarounds, actions and decisions that obstetricians make, to meet the needsof the women they care for.
Obstetricians have to make prompt decisions, organise multiple activities and co-ordinate care rapidly, all within an already complex system. ‘Work as done’ is achieved because of a combination of expertise, clinical decisions, experience and tacit knowledge and because obstetricians vary their performance, depending upon changing circumstances, that allows the system to function.
Reliability, adjustment, and safety
Studying ‘work as done’ brought insights into how obstetricians build adaptive capacities when working in complex settings. This adaptation is an essential factor in the interaction between complex infrastructures and human behaviour. Because healthcare is intractable, clinicians are relied on to adjust to situations (emergency cases, staff shortages, high patient numbers etc.) to create safe outcomes, as well as recover from unexpected events. Reliability is a necessary requirement of safety and is concerned with the likelihood of occurrence of failure . Clinicians are vital to creating high reliability and a resilient system.
Through my research with obstetricians, I found that they successfully demonstrated their adaptive capabilities to respond to unforeseen, unpredictable and unexpected demands and recover from high-risk situations, also known as resilience engineering . The ability of obstetricians and their teams to be in a state of constant alertness, sensitive to changes in women’s conditions, continually re-evaluate their safety supposition, and respond as appropriate, is a key resilient strength that was evident. It also requires an organisational culture that nurtures a climate of trust and respect.
The importance of culture and relationships
During interviews, obstetricians described the importance of trusting relationships, which fostered excellence in team working, and the ability to be collectively and consciously alert to risks and mitigations. Overall, they demonstrated excellent leadership attributes, valued safe care centred on the woman and her baby, good working relationships and the feeling that they made a positive difference.
"It was having the willingness to step in and take that level of responsibility in that situation. … it was also familiarity with the team and communication with the team, and drawing in the expertise of cardiologists and the anaesthetist so that we did have a cohesive joined up plan that we'd all agreed on and we'd communicated out to everyone." (Consultant Obstetrician, Manchester)
“It’s about staying calm, understanding what the whole situation is, … it's about gaining the trust of the woman and the staff, gaining the trust of the staff is much easier if it's a team that you know, who you've worked closely with, who know you as well, because they know what your skill set is.” (Consultant Obstetrician, London)
Improving maternity safety – some final thoughts
My research concluded that a systems approach to maternity safety including human factors and safety management must be adopted to understand 'work as done'. Safety can be improved through ‘learning from excellence’ as a way of cultivating habits in focussing on the activities that promote good outcomes, hence strengthening resilience as well as continuing to learn from the inevitable errors. I suggested using human reliability analysis, a technique looking at a process of care and systematically examining the process, to pinpoint and foresee possible failure points to proactively manage safety within a unit.
Excitingly, the NHS Patient Safety Strategy  is striving to embed safety-II principles, and healthcare regulators are considering how proactive safety management can be measured and developed as part of their inspection frameworks. Indicators for resilience engineering  are also emerging which will assist with assessing a resilient work environment and provide metrics for safety measurement.
You can read Farrah's full dissertation paper in the document attached towards the end of this webpage.
1. Hollnagel E, Braithwaite J. From Safety-I to Safety-II: A White Paper. The Resilient Health Care Net; 2015. 19
2. Vincent C. The measuring and monitoring of safety. UK: The Health Foundation; 2013.
3. E. Hollnagel JB, R Wears. Resilient Health Care: Ashgate Publishing Limited; 2013. 225 p.
4. NHS Improvement. The NHS Patient Safety Strategy Safer culture, safer systems, safer patients. July 2019. Available from https://www.england.nhs.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/190708_Patient_Safety_Strategy_for_website_v4.pdf
5. Ranasinghe U, Jefferies M, Davis P, Pillay M. Resilience Engineering Indicators and Safety Management: A Systematic Review. Saf Health Work. 2020;11(2):127-35.