First PhD Program in U.S. Trains Scientists to See, Fix Kinks in Healthcare System

New program aims to prevent 440,000 yearly deaths due to medical errors.
Why do physicians accidentally jab themselves in the hand with an EpiPen (epinephrine injection) when they are trying to give another person an injection while holding their breath?

How does directing a “Martian” to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich improve healthcare communications?

The answers are part of the curriculum for the first PhD in healthcare quality and patient safety program in the country — at Northwestern Medicine — which aims to prevent the annual 440,000 deaths from medical errors in the United States.

“You can’t stress enough how crazy it is that the third–leading cause of death is medical errors,” said Donna Woods, PhD, director of the graduate programs in healthcare quality and patient safety at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “How will this ever get fixed if we don’t train a work force to do it? We need an army of experts who need to know how to address this. The medical field does not have the skills to do it.”

The first PhD student in healthcare quality and patient safety graduated this fall with others in the pipeline.

Senior and mid–career clinicians (physicians, nurses, pharmacists) and healthcare professionals are trained by engineers, cognitive psychologists and risk assessment and change management specialists, who bring a critical fresh eye to the medical world. The “outsiders” teach students how to spot the vulnerable kinks in the system and figure out how to fix them. The students learn to do research, so they can design fixes based on scientific evidence.

To build a national healthcare safety army, Northwestern has provided a template from its master’s level healthcare quality and patient safety program – also the first in the country — to other medical schools to launch their own master’s programs. These include George Washington University, Thomas Jefferson University’s College of Population Health, University of Illinois and Cornell University.

The PhD students learn about physical and cognitive ergonomics, which is the study of predictable errors your mind can make and how to consider these in healthcare design to make the delivery of healthcare more reliable.

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