This study showed that health care professionals with key positions in Swedish county councils’ patient safety work attributed the current level of patient safety to a broad range of factors and believed that many different interventions, practices and approaches could contribute to improved patient safety, thus emphasizing the importance of multifactorial solutions to the patient safety problem. However, the conditions for patient safety work seemed to have plenty of room for improvement according to the patient safety officers.
The respondents stated to a large extent that patient involvement is important for patient safety. There is an international trend towards greater patient involvement in health care delivery , but there is still a paucity of research findings on the acceptability to patients of a new patient role and the extent to which such involvement actually leads to safety improvements . Research has identified numerous barriers to enlisting patients in efforts to improve patient safety including limited acceptance of a more active patient role  and insufficient health literacy, i.e. the capacity to obtain, process and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions . The fact that we observed limited agreement with the statement “patient complaints and reports are systematically analysed and followed up” suggests that it is easier to profess that patient involvement is important than to develop a systematic strategy that utilizes information from patients. There have been calls for more research for better understanding of how patients can be involved in their own care [18, 21–23].
Incident reporting and conducting root cause and risk analyses were identified as the most important factors for achieving the current levels of patient safety. These findings are in line with a Dutch survey of primary care physicians and researchers from eight countries, which found that reporting and analysis of incidents was considered very important . Local reporting systems have been given a dominant role in the drive to improve patient safety in Sweden . All Swedish county councils have computerized reporting systems and any health care practitioners can submit incidents . However, the reliance on incident reporting systems in many countries has been questioned by international researchers who claim that these systems are insufficient on their own to identify incidents and need to be supplemented with other information from patients and retrospective chart reviews [26–30]. It has been suggested that more process-oriented, rather than outcome-oriented, information is required to obtain a more complete picture of incidents and promote a blame-free reporting culture . Another important issue is the extent to which patient safety-related data are analysed, and how this may trigger appropriate actions and lead to organizational learning. Research on how data are transformed into appropriate strategies and learning is needed.
The respondents expressed conviction that an improved organizational culture that encourages reporting and avoids blame can result in enhanced patient safety. There has been a strong focus on patient safety culture in patient safety research and policymaking in the last decade, but relatively few studies [32–35] have actually demonstrated a positive relationship between this culture and outcomes. Although the respondents were convinced of the importance of an improved organizational culture that avoids blame and shame, researchers have highlighted the complexity of the culture concept as we do not know what aspects of the patient safety culture are most in need of improvement and how and whether these can be accomplished . Despite the importance attributed to patient safety culture, the use of the Handbook for Patient Safety – How to Measure Patient Safety Culture (one of the handbooks distributed by SALAR) was considered to have played a minor role in achieving the current level of patient safety. All Swedish county councils conduct patient safety culture measurements, but these have only been carried out for a few years so it is unlikely that they have had any influence on the culture as yet. Research is needed to examine how results from culture assessments can be fed back to health care practitioners at the micro, meso and macro levels of health care and how various strategies can be selected and implemented on the basis of the results of such assessments.
Communication was also identified as a critical factor for achieving enhanced patient safety in our study, both improved communication among health care practitioners themselves and between practitioners and patients. The concepts of communication and culture overlap because an open communication based on mutual trust is considered an integral aspect of a beneficial patient safety culture . Communication is usually measured as part of patient safety culture assessments. Instruments such as the Stanford PSC Survey, the Manchester Patient Safety Framework and AHRQ’s Hospital Survey on Patient Safety Culture all incorporate questions on communication.
Patient safety-related training and education was identified as another important factor to achieve improved patient safety. Patient safety is not a compulsory subject in the basic education of physicians and nurses in Sweden. Clinical training in Sweden, much like elsewhere, is typically organized around basic science themes, body systems or core specialty competencies. Hence, there are no courses for Swedish health care professionals that focus specifically on patient safety matters. Specific and more general patient safety-related knowledge must be acquired through participation in continuing professional education, with courses being offered at some universities in Sweden. However, these tend to be costly and reach small numbers of health care practitioners. Öhrn  has argued that more education and training in many patient safety issues is needed to increase Swedish health care practitioners’ knowledge and understanding of patient safety problems and to facilitate the development of more high-reliability health care organizations. Research on patient safety-related education and training has predominantly focused on targeted issues such as teamwork or simulation training, with far less attention given to activities aimed at increasing awareness and knowledge of patient safety issues more generally.
Our findings on the importance of achieving a blame-free organizational culture that encourages reporting, improved communication between staff and patients, as well as better education and training are very similar to those of a study of health care leaders undertaken in 2005 in Sweden . The previous Swedish study identified these three areas as the most important to attain improved patient safety. Similar findings were also noted in a Dutch survey of primary care physicians and researchers, where factors such as “measurement and feedback on safety culture in general practices”, “culture and mentality which facilitates learning from incidents” and various aspects related to education and training in patient safety-related issues were among the factors considered most important for patient safety .
The respondents in our study did not consider that workforce issues, such as reduced working hours for physicians or increased numbers of physicians or nurses, were important in order to achieve improved patient safety. These findings contrast somewhat with those in a study conducted in the United States by Blendon et al. , which identified increased numbers of nurses in hospitals, more time for physicians to spend with patients and reduced working hours for physicians in training as very important factors in achieving enhanced patient safety. However, their study population consisted of practicing physicians and members of the public. The respondents in our study were not frontline health care practitioners, which may provide a partial explanation for their low rating of these workforce issues. It would seem self-evident that a reduction in working hours should lead to improvements in patient safety. There is strong evidence that fatigue impairs clinical performance, but a simple mandate of working fewer hours may not yield improved patient care for many reasons [39, 40].
Some of our findings imply that patient safety work in Sweden is largely experience-based rather than evidence-based. For instance, few respondents felt that “research and scientific articles about patient safety” or “increased collaboration with researchers” were important. The role of research and evidence in patient safety practices is debated among patient safety researchers. Those who believe that patient safety work is too complex to study with scientific rigour argue that many practices have little downside and should be implemented when improvements can be expected, whereas other researchers hold that practices should be studied to the extent possible even if experimental research conditions are difficult to achieve . The use of many of the guidelines produced by SALAR (e.g. Postoperative Infections, Falls and Injuries from Falls, Malnutrition), were perceived to have been important factors in reaching the current levels of patient safety. These guidelines consist of recommendations to achieve safer health care and are widely disseminated to Swedish health care practitioners for use at the micro level of health care. They are based on the latest research findings assembled by expert panels consisting of researchers and meso- and micro-level health care practitioners; key results and conclusions from research are summarized and presented in formats that make them easy to digest. The use of these guidelines suggests that research has an important role in Swedish patient safety work but also indicates that research must be summarized and presented in abbreviated form to be relevant for busy practitioners at the sharp end of health care.
Somewhat surprisingly, the new Patient Safety Act was considered very important for today’s patient safety levels. The law is so new that it cannot have affected the county councils’ patient safety work. However, the law appears to have served an important function in raising awareness of the importance of the patient safety issue, thus providing crucial support for the initiatives taken by the patient safety officers at the meso level of Swedish health care. The impact of the law among health care practitioners at the micro level is currently not known.
This study has some shortcomings that must be considered when interpreting the results. The survey questionnaire has not been validated in research studies, but it was partially based on existing questionnaires described in the literature [14, 16]. Furthermore, the questionnaire underwent a thorough development process (lasting 6 months) to ensure that its content, structure and the formulation and wording of the individual questions would work well for the respondents. The content of three sections (conditions for patient safety work, factors of importance for attaining the current levels of patient safety and for achieving enhanced patient safety in the future) were discussed with many of the leading and most experienced Swedish patient safety researchers and representatives from SALAR. The response rate was quite high at 79%, but nevertheless provides some scope for response bias. Non-responders in survey research are usually quite different from those who participate, thus limiting the investigator’s ability to make generalizations about the entire population. Social desirability bias may have served to produce more positive accounts of patient safety issues than are actually the case. However, the questions generally did not concern the respondents’ attitudes or opinions concerning patient safety, but rather investigated their perceptions of various conditions for the county councils’ patient safety work and what factors they believed affected patient safety.
This study also has considerable strengths. We were able to reach the targeted study population, as most of the respondents believed that they had good knowledge of the county council’s patient safety work and the ability to influence this work. The results provide important knowledge about current patient safety work in Sweden and give an indication of how this work may be further developed.