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How Has Safety in the Healthcare Industry Improved Over the Years?

A doctor wearing scrubs puts latex gloves on above a table topped with a bottle of hand sanitizer and spare surgical masks.

Healthcare is a complex system. With global healthcare spending expected to reach beyond $10 trillion by 2022, continued American unrest for healthcare systems to changetech innovation driving healthcare evolution for the future, and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the industry, healthcare is a tumultuous topic that can set any family dinner alight with differing opinions and experiences. 

Through the obstacles that the healthcare industry faces, one movement has been a constant from the early 1980s with the evolution of patient safety and quality of care. From handwashing in the medical field once considered controversial, to the modernization and use of technology for antimicrobial resistance and infection control, health and safety for patients and workers continue to be strong forces driving change and growth in the industry. 

This article dissects a few essential aspects of how safety in healthcare has improved, yet still has room for growth, leading to a safer and healthier future for patients and medical professionals alike. 

Equitability and Access

Achieving equity in the U.S. healthcare system is filled with opportunities and challenges. The diversity of the U.S. population has increased substantially over the last few decades and is projected to increase exponentially in the future. As the diversity of the American population increases, a key aspect of the health and safety standards in the industry hinges on equitability within and access to healthcare.

There are a few poignant moments in the history of healthcare that took major steps towards recognizing the racial and ethnic disparities within healthcare. This includes the initial comprehensive investigation of 1984 pushed by Secretary of Health and Human Services, Margaret Heckler that prompted a focus on the issue.

From this investigation, the Department of Health and Human Services created the Office of Minority Health in 1987 with the purpose to eliminate disparities by funding research and programs, improving data collection, and developing new policies and programs. 

The Affordable Care Act of 2010 included provisions to increase access to health care, as well as make it more affordable. Additional provisions within the ACA include a focus on improving healthcare data collection for race and ethnicity, disabilities, geographic location, as well as increasing diversity within the healthcare workforce.

 Despite efforts to address healthcare and safety for equitability and access, evidence shows that there are still gaps that need to be addressed, particularly for affordability and access. 

The future of health, safety, and access to healthcare for underserved groups may be achieved through digital health tools that have revolutionized clinical and research practices. The adoption of high-tech health devices poses many opportunities to support a healthier and safer future with increased data and access. 

Though, to be truly effective in bridging equity gaps, accessibility to tools, as well as ongoing research that includes community engagement is essential to the future of equitable healthcare and safe practices. Health equity must be a strategic priority as in industry-wide imperative in creating more just and safe healthcare environments and systems.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

The development and implementation of personal protective equipment have been essential to the safety of both medical staff as well as patients. PPE is the first form of defense for infectious microorganisms and hazardous materials in healthcare environments and while providing care. There are many forms of PPE products that provide unique protection. This may include:

  • Masks, respirators, and safety glasses protect both patients as well as healthcare workers from infectious airborne disease.
  • Lead garments that provide X-ray radiation protection, including lead glasses as well as X-ray markers that ensure readability of digital radiography. 
  • Gloves reduce the transmission of disease and germs between patients and medical staff. 
  • Body protection such as lab coats or barrier coats that protect against infectious materials. 
  • Hearing protection that reduces noise exposure in medical labs.

Not only is the use of personal protective equipment vital for both patients and healthcare personnel, but must also be put on, taken off, and disposed of in the proper way to maintain safety. 

Studies on PPE and the reduction of contamination of highly infectious disease showed that through a simulated exposure with fluorescent markers or harmless microbes, contamination rates for those with PPE were 25%, while the control group without PPE had a much higher contamination rate of 67%. The study also notes that training for the proper use of PPE as well as the continued study of modified vs. standard PPE is essential to reducing infection and informing future practices and the use of PPE.

Electronic Medical Records and Clinical Data Registries

Many technological advancements have improved health and safety in healthcare, including the adoption and use of electronic health records. Electronic health record systems increase healthcare provider’s ability to manage and maintain records such as medical histories, lab data, physician notes, but can also assist with billing, inter practice referrals, appointment scheduling, and prescription refills. 

Meaningful use of these systems improves quality, safety, and efficiency during the treatment of a patient. Furthermore, adopting the use of registries for patent data can provide population-focused information that can be used for clinical research studies, and safe,  quality reporting that can reveal patterns of disease mechanisms and risk factors. 

What’s Left to Be Done?

Though the quality of healthcare has changed over time with notable reductions in mortality rates, premature death, and hospital admissions for a variety of conditions, there is still a great amount of opportunity to make healthcare safer. This includes continuing to improve access to essential care, addressing social barriers to safety such as poor workplace culture and healthcare worker burnout, and increasing backup, rapid response, and primary care practices.

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