What Is Patient Safety and Why Is It So Important?

Nurse helping patient walk around hospital safely

Every day, dedicated nurses, doctors and healthcare technicians put in long hours for the sake of helping their patients enjoy the best possible outcome for their health. However, things don’t always go to plan, and sometimes patient safety is compromised despite the best intentions of healthcare professionals. If you aspire to work in healthcare or you’re already a working professional, you should know the broad answer to the questions: What is patient safety? and Why is patient safety so important in healthcare?

In This Blog:

What Is Patient Safety?

The term “patient safety” seems fairly straightforward, yet it encompasses quite a lot. Exactly what is patient safety in healthcare? This topic was first given high-level scrutiny in the U.S. in 1999, when the U.S. Institute of Medicine published its groundbreaking report, “To Err Is Human: Building a Safer Health System.” This landmark study was based on an analysis of various studies that determined that as many as 98,000 patients were dying every year in hospitals from preventable causes.1

Following the publication of the report, changes began to be made, both at the congressional level and within the healthcare profession, in an attempt to improve healthcare quality and patient safety. The focus of the report provides a good working definition of what is patient safety in healthcare. First, consider what patient safety is not.

Every day, patients go to hospitals to receive medical care. There is a general understanding that every type of medical treatment — whether it’s a pill or a procedure — will carry the inherent risk of some side effects. The issue of patient safety in hospitals doesn’t encompass these risks because they are intrinsic and largely unchangeable.

Rather, patient safety in healthcare refers to harm inflicted on a patient that could have been prevented in some way. For example, if a hospital is understaffed, a post-surgical patient may be more likely to fall trying to get to the bathroom because there aren’t enough staff members to assist them. For another example, if a hospital doesn’t strictly follow its infection control procedures, patients may be more likely to develop hospital-acquired infections (HAIs).

In addition to falls and HAIs, there is a wide range of preventable medical errors that can cause harm to patients, such as the following:

  • Misdiagnosis or delayed diagnosis
  • Medication errors (e.g., administering the wrong dosage or the wrong medication)
  • Unnecessary surgery
  • Surgery on the wrong body part or the wrong patient
  • Failure to account for surgical equipment (e.g., a sponge or clamp inadvertently left inside a patient)
  • Improper medical device placement

By and large, nurses and other healthcare professionals are ethical, conscientious individuals who try to do their best for their patients. However, medical mistakes can and do happen, sometimes due to factors such as fatigue from working long hours.

Why Is Patient Safety in Healthcare So Important?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), up to four in 10 patients around the world suffer harm when receiving outpatient and primary healthcare, and up to 80% of those harmful outcomes are preventable.2 In the U.S., a Johns Hopkins study from 2016 found that about 206,000 patients died from preventable healthcare-related causes. That figure has improved somewhat; in 2019, the number of annual preventable deaths among U.S. patients stood at 161,000.3

However, the fact that fatal healthcare errors are on a downward trend is likely to be cold comfort to the deceased patients’ loved ones. Every patient who dies from preventable causes leaves behind family members and friends who mourn that loss. Even when a healthcare error does not result in death, it can prove costly in other ways, such as by keeping patients out of work longer, in the hospital longer and perhaps even resulting in permanent disabilities.

Steps for Healthcare Professionals To Improve Patient Safety

Now that you’re more familiar with the answer to the question, “What is patient safety in healthcare?” it’s time to take a look at the steps nurses can take to improve healthcare quality and patient safety.

Better patient safety must begin at the top, with leaders who prioritize establishing a culture of patient safety. For example, every hospital needs to establish rigorous guidelines, protocols and expectations, along with avenues for reporting any errors that do occur in a way that is intended to minimize further harm to the patient.

Every nurse, however, has the potential to be a leader within their department. Open and clear communication (particularly regarding patient information exchanges at shift changes), a collaborative mindset, and a habit of double-checking medication instructions can help minimize medical errors.

Thorough patient and family caregiver education is another way to help prevent medical errors. The better patients understand their condition and recommended treatments, the better able they may be to contribute to their own positive outcome. Educated patients should be empowered to ask questions, including to question medical guidance when it seems potentially problematic.

Earn Your Healthcare Graduate Certificate

For registered nurses (RNs), nothing is more important than the well-being and safety of their patients. If you’re already a working nurse with at least a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN), it may be time to think about going back to school to improve your clinical skills and nursing knowledge. A healthcare graduate certificate program can provide an excellent avenue for improving patient safety in your practice by enhancing your own skills as a clinician.

Some graduate certificate programs focus heavily on this very topic. For instance, you might choose to enroll in a graduate certificate of completion in healthcare quality and patient safety program. Although the curriculum will vary from one school to the next, you can generally expect to study topics such as the following:

  • Study nationally established expectations and metrics for quality
  • Examine various approaches to aid quality improvement measures
  • Evaluate methods to track, assess, analyze and review patient safety data
  • Discuss project management models and methods in health care
  • Gain skills to establish expectations and identify ways to mitigate obstacles in health care project management and quality improvement
  • Explore technologies that assist clinical decision-making for patient safety

When you successfully earn your healthcare graduate certificate in patient safety and healthcare quality, you’ll be fully prepared to identify and implement quality improvements in your own practice. You’ll also have an extra credential that can bolster your resume.

Earn Your MSN Degree in Patient Safety

Although earning a healthcare graduate certificate in patient safety is an important step toward better patient outcomes and fewer adverse events such as hospital-acquired infections, you may decide that you’d rather take your career a step further. You could consider earning your Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree in healthcare quality and patient safety. During this program, you would take a comprehensive and intensive look at healthcare quality metrics and quality improvement initiatives.

When you graduate with your MSN degree, you might decide to continue in your role as a registered nurse. Or, you might decide it’s time to pursue a leadership role. If you pursue a position such as quality and patient safety coordinator, patient safety officer or director of risk management and quality improvement, you would be in a position to better direct the healthcare improvement initiatives at your facility. You would be well prepared to apply evidence-based practices and models, which would help ensure a high standard of care across departments at your hospital.

You can prepare to improve outcomes for your patients when you further your academic achievements at Grand Canyon University (GCU). Apply today for enrollment in the Graduate Certificate of Completion in Health Care Quality and Patient Safety, which emphasizes the quality improvement process and explores patient safety metrics and data analysis. When you’re ready to go further, enroll in the Master of Science in Nursing with an Emphasis in Health Care Quality & Patient Safety degree program and become an MSN-prepared clinician.

Fill out the form on this page to learn how you can join the dynamic nursing community online or in person at GCU.


Retrieved from:

1Association of American Medical Colleges, 20 Years of Patient Safety in January 2023.

2World Health Organization, Patient Safety in January 2023.

3National Library of Medicine, Patient Safety Issues Continue to Plague American Hospitals in January 2023.


Approved by the dean of the College of Nursing on March 21, 2023.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.