Monday, 20 April 2015

Are Chinese hospitals safe? Fear of blame and shame is common, but the overall safety climate is good


China may not have as many ambulance-chasing lawyers as the US, but healthcare staff live in fear of making mistakes because of a culture of blame and shame. Not so much "Better Call Saul" as "Better Keep Quiet".

While in the west there is now an attempt to make healthcare staff be more open and transparent in reporting medical mistakes, it seems like China has a long way to go in overcoming cultural barriers to admitting to errors. In a survey of 1272 healthcare staff at Shanghai hospitals, researchers found that there was a high level of fear of being blamed and fear of being subject to shame. Almost three quarters of staff said they would be disciplined if found making a mistake and 42% thought that asking for help was a sign of incompetence. A similar proportion of staff - 42% - thought that telling others about mistakes was embarrassing, and 40% of thought that it was better to not report errors in the hope that nobody would notice the mistake.

Worryingly, work pressure was also a major factor in mistakes - and covering them up - with about 60% of staff saying that with higher workloads, management forced them to work faster and taking shortcuts that might negatively affect patient safety. About 40% of hospital staff said they had witnessed a coworker do something that appeared to be unsafe in patient care in the last year and one in three staff admitted they had done something that was unsafe for patient car.

The fear of blame and shame phenomenon appears to be an Asian and Chinese concept. The 40-70% levels of 'blame and shame' fears seen in the study were much higher than the 5% rates seen in U.S. hospitals. As the authors note:

"Chinese society tends to be more collective than the Western society, which is called “familial collectivism” People admitting mistakes do not only embarrass themselves but also embarrass the team. Thus, [healthcare] workers may be reluctant to admit to making mistakes in China."

Interestingly, doctors had the highest levels of  “fear of shame” and the researchers said this chimed with the finding that Chinese doctors do not believe that “human error is inevitable”,  - in other words, Chinese doctors feel they must act like gods and be seen to be infallible - whereas admitting a mistake would be a sign of incompetence. This is consistent with “fear of shame” being particularly high among physicians. The Confucian ethic was also seen in the high levels of fear about reporting mistakes made by more senior staff that endanger patient safety.

Nevertheless, the overall safety climate in hospitals was no worse than that seen in the US, with 15% of staff giving 'problematic' responses to safety questions. As the authors said, Chinese healthcare workers are only likely to report mistakes and safety issue when they feel psychologically safe and do not have to fear being blamed and shamed.

The findings are published in BioMed Central.

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