Empower Staff By Unlocking the Potential of Human Factors in Healthcare

Healthcare providers often face intense and dynamic situations which can result in avoidable harm to patients. Understanding human factors in healthcare can help to empower staff and improve patient safety by managing the systems and environment around them.

The National Patient Safety Agency estimates there are 850,000 incidents and errors occurring every year in the NHS, which it understandably deems to be an unacceptable figure.

While there is no magic elixir for reducing this number to zero, understanding and applying the principles of clinical human factors has the potential to significantly improve patient safety.


As we discussed in our previous article exploring the principles of human performance, humans will occasionally fail in their attempt to achieve a desired outcome due to certain limitations. Human factors deals with how processes and systems can be designed to eliminate, or at least manage, the chance of human performance issues occurring.

What are human factors?

Human factors are the physical, cognitive, and psychological characteristics of people that influence how they interact with systems and the world around them. They encompass a wide range of aspects, and understanding them is crucial for designing systems and environments that are safe, efficient, and user-friendly.

Given the paramount importance of safety in high-risk industries like aviation and space exploration, where human factors play a critical role, it’s only natural to see their application extend to healthcare settings, where patient safety reigns supreme.

Human factors has a variety of synonyms which depend on the context and the specific focus of the work being done. But all terms share the common goal of understanding and accommodating human needs and limitations in the design of systems and products.

Ergonomics focuses more on the engineering aspects of designing systems and products to be compatible with human users. While usability engineering and user-centred design emphasise how systems and products should be designed based on the needs and preferences of the users.

What are human factors in healthcare?

Human factors in healthcare encompasses ergonomics as well as the physical, cognitive, and psychological aspects of both healthcare providers and patients and how they interact with each other, technologies, and the healthcare environment itself.

What are examples of human factors in healthcare?

Examples of human factors can be broken down into those of the individual, environmental factors, organisational culture, and policies and procedures. Applying human factors and ergonomics in healthcare can help design medical systems and equipment to be more user-friendly and encourage medical professionals to embrace their use.

  • Individual: Physical aspects such as fatigue or stress can make it more likely for medical professionals to make mistakes, such as a medication error, misinterpreting a test result or an error during surgery.
  • Environmental: In a healthcare setting, noise, crowding, and poor lighting can all contribute to distractions and errors, for example misreading a medication label or being unable to concentrate due to feeling overwhelmed.
  • Organisational culture: In a culture where staff feel afraid to raise concerns or report errors due to fear of being reprimanded, the ability to learn from mistakes is hindered.
  • Policies and procedures: A system which is difficult to use could result in important information being omitted leading to an incorrect dosage of medication.

Why are human factors in healthcare important?

Human factors is a focus for the NHS as well as private healthcare services because it has the potential to improve the quality of healthcare and reduce the number of adverse events. One way this can be achieved is through learning from mistakes to create better systems, processes and equipment.

The NHS is taking action to explore how understanding human factors can improve patient safety. The Parliamentary Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO) is developing expertise in human factors to create solutions which help to prevent the same errors happening again.

By applying human factors principles within areas such as RCA analysis and learning from complaints, a better understanding of why mistakes happen can be obtained.


How can healthcare organisations manage human factors?


As healthcare management consultants, we regularly see the impact of leadership within an organisation. To effectively manage human factors in healthcare, organisations need leaders who lead by example, foster open communication and demonstrate genuine care for employee wellbeing. This helps to create an environment where human factors are inherently considered, which reduces stress, improves focus, and minimizes errors.

Just Culture

As human factors often involve unintentional errors, organisations with a just culture shift the focus away from individual blame to look at what went wrong to prevent it happening again. Strong leaders encourage staff to report incidents without fear of reprisal, enabling timely interventions and system improvements.

Empowering Staff

Another area which demonstrates the importance of strong leadership is where leaders empower teams by giving them ownership over their work and creating an environment where everyone feels valued and heard. This cultivates trust and encourages individuals to step up, speak up, and identify potential human factors risks.

Systems and Processes

By understanding how people interact with their work environment, systems and processes can be designed that are not only efficient but also empowering and safe. Streamlining workflows, simplifying interfaces, and minimising distractions can ease mental strain and allow staff to focus on what matters most – patient care.

Providing access to relevant data and fostering a culture of questioning and feedback can help staff to improve decision making and raise concerns without fear of blame. Managing clinical risk through data driven insights helps to empower staff with actionable risk intelligence which contributes to building a culture of safety and continuous improvement.

Ergonomic Equipment

Equipment which accounts for human factors principles can reduce physical strain and improve patient safety. Ergonomically designed equipment minimises fatigue and musculoskeletal injuries, allowing staff to work comfortably and efficiently. For example, ergonomic equipment which reduces strain on the hands and wrists of surgeons, and adjustable beds and workstations that adapt to different heights and postures to prevent back pain.

Equipment designed to be user friendly with intuitive interfaces reduce frustration and errors, such as medical devices with touchscreens and voice-activated commands which help to streamline workflow and minimise mistakes.

Education and Training

Investing in education and training programs are important in managing human factors in healthcare as well as understanding human performance. Training programs that incorporate the principles of human factors can help staff understand how their own cognitive biases, fatigue levels, and stress can impact their decision-making and performance.

Incorporating human factors principles into case studies and scenarios, training programs can help staff develop critical thinking skills and identify potential human factors risks in various situations, empowering them to make informed decisions and proactively address challenges.

Why are human factors training programs important?

Proactively managing human factors minimises errors and accidents, leading to a safer environment for everyone. Effective education and training which integrates human factors is not a one-time event but an ongoing process. Regular refresher courses, simulation exercises, and feedback loops are crucial to ensure the knowledge and skills acquired are translated into real-world practice.

Incorporating human factors principles into the overall training culture can create a learning environment where open communication about mistakes and near misses is encouraged. This fosters a culture of safety and continuous improvement, ultimately leading to better patient care.

By prioritising human factors, healthcare organisations create a safer, more productive, and more fulfilling work environment for everyone, laying the foundation for a thriving healthcare organisation.


Our Human Performance training courses explain in simple terms how our capability channels function and equally how they can be hampered and inhibited, which helps with understanding human factors.

If you would like to know more about how your organisation can realise the potential of human factors in healthcare, please book a free consultation or contact Ed Marsden on 020 7494 5670 or [email protected].


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