Tampa General Hospital CEO: Creating an environment where everyone feels safe

As the president and CEO of a leading academic medical center, my primary responsibility is to balance the care and safety of our patients with the needs of my team members. Truth be told, one feeds the other — by making sure my team is supported and feels empowered to raise issues and concerns, admit to mistakes without fear and make recommendations for improvement, which results in patients receiving world-class care.

The recent case involving a nurse in Tennessee who was convicted for accidentally administering a drug that resulted in the death of a patient shines a light on the tremendous complexities of the delivery of healthcare. The truth is healthcare is incredibly sophisticated and highly nuanced. In fact, this industry is one of the most complex in the world.

To ensure patient safety, hospitals like Tampa General, where I serve as president and CEO, establish highly orchestrated processes and protocols to create a safe environment for our team members and patients. We have designed a system that looks for small risks to ensure safety and efficiency. Our procedures are under scrutiny and are checked and rechecked. We rely not only on these measures as well as sophisticated technology to ensure safety but also on team members, including our nurses, to consistently monitor and report any issues. As such, we must share in the responsibility of their work — their actions are our actions.

In a well-designed system and organization — regardless of industry — the responsibility of delivering the highest level of patient care and safety or quality of product is a balanced and fair set of systems for which both the team member and the organization are responsible for, supporting and appropriately holding each other accountable. This is how high-functioning teams operate. In properly run organizations, accountability and responsibility are collective and do not sit on the shoulders of any one person. That is why singling out the mistake of one nurse with one patient and irrevocably altering the course of her entire life is heartbreaking, tragic and wrong.

While I admit to not knowing the full nuances of the case, I did speak to colleagues and followed the case in the mainstream press. I can tell you that in my nearly 30 years in healthcare, I have never personally seen a nurse prosecuted for making an error within a system that should've had the safeguards in place to protect her. 

The mistake that occurred in this case could have easily been prevented. However, once a tragedy occurred, it was the organization's responsibility to stand up for its employee and hold itself accountable. 

Nurses are true heroes and take on the most challenging jobs in health care. They do this work because they care about those in their charge and see their job not simply as a profession but as a vocation. As industry leaders, we must support them and all team members when they are working tirelessly to do what is right. 

This case is a cautionary tale, not just about the healthcare industry but all industries. We, as leaders, must create environments rooted in psychological safety where employees feel able to do their best work free from fear. The bottom line is that organizations should be spaces where everyone feels safe to express themselves, be open and honest, point out challenges and opportunities for improvement, and not be singled out for trying their best in an imperfect system.

John Couris is president and CEO of Tampa General Hospital. You can follow him and hear more on LinkedIn.

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