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What is Human Factors?

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In healthcare, many professionals coordinate care across organisational, departmental and team interfaces. Like all humans, healthcare professionals are fallible and will make errors irrespective of how experienced, committed and careful they are (Reason, 1990) but the design and complexity of healthcare systems increases the likelihood that errors will harm patients.

Reducing patient harm is a strategic priority for the NHS. Integrating human factors science into the design of healthcare systems, processes and tasks can play a significant role in reducing patient harm.

Human factors is the science of understanding human performance within a given system (Clinical Human Factors Group, 2015). Translated into a healthcare context, human factors has been defined as:

“Enhancing clinical performance through an understanding of the effects of teamwork, tasks, equipment, workspace, culture, organization on human behaviour and abilities, and application of that knowledge in clinical settings.” (Catchpole, 2011)

Developing healthcare systems that are founded on human factors principles can positively impact on safety by:

  • reduction of harm through better design of healthcare systems and equipment
  • understanding why healthcare staff make errors and how ‘systems factors’ threaten patient safety
  • improving the safety culture of teams and organisations
  • enhancing teamwork and improving communication between healthcare staff.
  • improving how we learn when things go wrong by improving current approaches to incident investigation
  • predicting ‘what could go wrong’ in the design of new hospitals and healthcare processes, for example, through the application of cognitive task analysis, prospective risk assessment tools, workload assessments etc

Human factors encompass all those factors that can influence people and their behaviour. In a work context, human factors are the environmental, organisational and job factors, and individual characteristics which influence behaviour at work.

Human Factors is a scientific discipline (not a collection of factors about humans), which is why we don’t answer the question “What are human factors?”

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