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Ochsner J. 2017 Spring; 17(1): 9–12.
PMCID: PMC5349644

Patient Safety vs Patient Treatment

Michael Sinnott, MBBS, FACEM, FRACP

Despite the simple, logical philosophy underpinning the patient safety movement, seemingly inexplicably, the results have fallen well short of expectations.1,2 An unresolved or unidentified factor contributing to this shortfall is the lack of importance placed on the symbiotic relationship between staff safety and patient safety,3 resulting in staff operating in a self-blame culture. Further, a lack of understanding of the distinction between patient treatment and patient safety has resulted in opposing groups of experts talking incessantly at each other, with both sides hearing different information.

Consider this example: the Canadian Patient Safety Institute has, as one of its laudable goals, the vision that one day all clinical staff will be educated in patient safety.4 On the surface, this goal seems axiomatic, akin to stating, “One day, we would like all Australian teachers to be trained to be cognizant of their children's safety as well as their learning.” However, on further reflection, it occurred to me that there is a distinction between patient treatment and patient safety. The two terms are not synonymous, but there is considerable overlap between them. In patient treatment, the focus is on medical training, but that is not the focus in patient safety. I suggest that defining and examining the differences—in my opinion, the terms are incorrectly conflated (Tables 1 and and2)—will2)—will be important both as a research concept and as a communication tool. Focusing on the communication aspect will help ensure better translation of key patient safety concepts into clinical practice (Table 3).

Table 1.
Defining the Terms
Table 2.
Sample Clinical Scenarios
Table 3.
Potential Outcomes

The distinction between patient treatment and patient safety should not be considered to be mere semantics. In the late 1980s when the concepts of quality assurance and continuous quality improvement first came to healthcare, the message suggested that “we [external consultants] are going to teach you [medical and nursing staff] how to practice good quality medicine,” with the inference being that “the health profession knows nothing about good quality medical practice and clinical audit.” Not surprisingly, the new zealots were not enthusiastically welcomed with open arms.

Similarly, if I were to tell a group of orthopedic colleagues that I thought they needed to be educated about patient safety, I would assume my colleagues could (mis)interpret my statement as meaning, “You don't practice good patient treatment.” They might hear that I was going to teach them how to better perform joint replacement surgery, a subject about which I know nothing. Their enthusiasm to embrace whatever I said next would be at best muted.


Statistics Analogy

I posit that the relationship between patient treatment and patient safety is akin to the relationship between the sensitivity and specificity of a diagnostic test. At a certain point, increasing sensitivity (making sure you don't miss anybody with the disease) leads to decreasing specificity (including more people who don't actually have the disease). The second similarity is that no test is perfect: none has 100% sensitivity and none has 100% specificity.

Case Study

A patient presents to the emergency department (ED) complaining of abdominal pain. Examination reveals the patient is in septic shock, and initial investigations reveal that the patient has severe acute on chronic renal failure.

The junior doctor (a patient treatment proponent) decides to do a 3-phase computed tomography (CT) with contrast scan of the abdomen to determine if the patient has an abscess or other surgical condition that can only be treated with a formal drainage procedure.

However, the patient safety advocates have convinced the radiology team that they should not give intravenous (IV) contrast to patients with a low estimated glomerular filtration rate (poor renal function) because such patients are much more likely to go into renal failure, requiring short- or long-term dialysis. Consequently, the radiologist (who is patient safety focused at this time) refuses to give IV contrast because the patient's renal function is not in the safe range for IV contrast.

Neither the ED doctor nor the radiologist is 100% right or 100% wrong in his or her desired actions.

The patient treatment team needs to understand and acknowledge that if contrast CT scans are done in this population, a number of patients—maybe even this one—will develop renal failure requiring short- or long-term dialysis (or even transplantation) and will suffer the associated morbidity and mortality. The patient may not have an abscess and thus will survive but will need to be dialyzed for the rest of his or her life.

The patient safety team needs to understand and acknowledge that if the contrast is not given, some patients will die because the curative surgical drainage is either delayed or not done at all as a consequence of the diagnostic test not being performed. In other words, the patient may die with preserved renal function.

The important message from Figures 1, ,2,2, and and33 is that patient treatment and patient safety can be optimized, but neither can ever be 100% perfect. The correct answer may only be known in hindsight.

Figure 1.
Even under ideal circumstances, patient care is not always perfect.
Figure 2.
In this scenario, attempts to improve patient treatment increase the risk of a patient safety event occurring.
Figure 3.
In this event, concentrating actions on patient safety protocols increases the risk of a good patient treatment being overlooked.

Business Analogy

Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, lists habit 5 as “First seek to understand, then to be understood.”5 Patient safety advocates have to better understand the primary aim of the clinician: Sometimes, taking a risk is justified. Just as important, the clinician has to better understand and acknowledge that the efforts of patient safety experts are directed at improving the outcome of all patients, including theirs.

The poor patient has to understand both concepts.

Mathematical Analogy

Patient care = 𝒇1 (patient treatment) + 𝒇2 (patient safety), with the wisdom of Solomon required to determine the value of each of the 2 functions, which will change on a case-by-case basis (Figure 4). For those of us without this special wisdom, despite our best efforts, we will get it wrong from time to time.

Figure 4.
The wisdom of Solomon is needed for case-by-case decisions. Determining the correct emphasis to be placed on patient treatment and patient safety principles in the care of an individual patient is an inexact science.


A better appreciation of the subtle but important differences between patient treatment and patient safety presented in this concept paper may help bridge the gap between current and desired practice and outcome. Understanding that the 2 concepts have dichotomous features but overall are symbiotic principles of patient care will highlight that safety is required to maximize patient treatment. Likewise, comprehension of patient treatment principles is necessary to optimize patient safety. If better communication between doctor and patient and doctor and doctor is a good idea, surely it is a good idea to improve communication between patient treatment and patient safety proponents. Both patients and the general public need to be better informed that healthcare is an imperfect system.


1. National Healthcare Quality Report, 2009. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Reviewed March 2010. Accessed December 5, 2016.
2. Clancy CM. AHRQ: one decade after To Err Is Human. Patient Safety & Quality Healthcare. Published September 8, 2009. Accessed December 5, 2016.
3. Sinnott M, Shaban RZ. Can we have a culture of patient safety without one of staff safety? BMJ. 2011. Mar 4;342:c6171. doi: 10.1136/bmj.c6171. [PubMed]
4. The safety competencies: enhancing patient safety across the health professions. Canadian Patient Safety Institute. Published 2008. Revised August 2009. Accessed December 5, 2016.
5. Covey SR. The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People. New York, NY: Free Press; 1989.

Articles from The Ochsner Journal are provided here courtesy of Ochsner Clinic Foundation