AIMS: This paper aims to introduce the topic of human factors to nursing management and to identify areas where it can be applied to patient safety. BACKGROUND: Human factors is a discipline established in most safety critical industries and uses knowledge about human behaviour in the analysis and design of complex systems, yet it is relatively new to many in healthcare. EVALUATION: Most safety critical industries have developed tools and techniques to apply human factors to system design, and these have been reviewed together with those resources already available for use in healthcare. KEY ISSUES: Models of human behaviour such as the nature and patterns of human error, information processing, decision-making and team work have clear applications to healthcare. Human factors focus on a system view of safety, and propose that safety should, where possible, be 'designed in'. Other interventions such as building defences, mitigating hazards and education and training should only be used where design solutions cannot be found. CONCLUSIONS: Simple human factors principles such as: designing for standardization; the involvement of users and staff in designing services and procuring equipment; understanding how errors occur; and the workarounds that staff will inevitably take are vital considerations in improving patient safety. IMPLICATIONS FOR NURSING MANAGEMENT: Opportunities for the application of human factors to healthcare and improved patient safety are discussed. Some existing tools and techniques for applying human factors in nursing management are also presented.
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