KARACHI - Perhaps one of the most crucial aspects of medicine and medical education is ensuring ‘education for service and patient safety’. According to a report by the Institute of Medicine medical errors are the eighth leading cause of death in patients in the United States. The estimated national cost of medical errors is $17 to $29 billion.

To help develop a better understanding of global trends and practices the three-day Association for Excellence in Medical Education (AEME) and 16th Aga Khan University (AKU) symposium titled ‘education for service and patient safety in health professions’ will continue from Friday till Sunday at AKU.

Speaking on the second day of the conference, presenters highlighted several methods of improving patient safety in practice as well as in the medical curriculum.

The speakers emphasised on starting with simple steps such as instilling patient safety into the institutional - educational as well as professional – culture, at the undergraduate and postgraduate education levels and in practice. Creating such a culture would in turn help in honest disclosure and acceptance of mistakes in order to rectify them for the future.

There is no doubt that patient safety has reached a significant and visible level of importance in medical practice. For years medical professionals worldwide have been testing various approaches to improve the standard and quality of patient care and safety. However, the debate on whether the ability to grasp and apply patient safety is more theoretical or practical is on-going.

“In teaching students [about patient safety] one must recognise the limits of their influence,” explained Director for the Centre of Medical Education in Context, Professor Janet Grant. According to her, teaching patient safety in theory is not a substitute for practical role models.

“There is no accurate way to assess the understanding medical students have of patient safety till you don’t assess their actions once they begin practice.” Still, it is critical to create a culture of patient safety and care in medical professionals from the onset of their education into the field,” she added.

Head of the School of Medicine at Keele University in the United Kingdom, Professor Valerie Wass, focused her presentation on a greater need for social accountability. Her presentation titled ‘Integrating professionalism into the curriculum to foster a culture of patient safety’ touched on several key factors including the importance of institutions to define professionalism in providing quality education for quality service.

“We need a common set of values around social accountability. Institutions must start by defining their local definition of professionalism which must be culturally acceptable and shares across all areas of patient care,” Professor Wass said. The framework on which professionalism rests is laid by a foundation comprising clinical competence, communication skills and ethical and legal understanding. The pillars include excellence in the field, humanism, accountability and altruism.

Loss of life and limb are among the most severe consequences of a lack of patient safety. “Death due to an overdose during chemotherapy, having the wrong leg amputated and a drug-mix up during a minor surgery have all made headlines and caused grave concern in the US,” said Associate Dean and Professor of Medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago Professor Ara Tekian.

“I believe identifying role models who promote zero tolerance for medical errors is one method [to improve patient safety],” he said. “In doing so [identifying role models] others can learn from practice rather than just theory.” Professor Tekian also suggests allowing students access to speak with families who are willing to share their tragic experiences. “This will help students to fully comprehend the consequences of their actions.”

Other speakers include Professor Umar Ali Khan, Pro Vice Chancellor at Isra University, Islamabad; Professor Rukhsana W Zuberi, Associate Dean for Education, FHS, Chair of the Department for Educational Development at AKU; Professor Stefan Lindgren, President of the World Federation for Medical Education, Professor John Norcini, President and CEO of the Foundation for Advancement of International Medical Education and Research; Professor John Boulet, Vice President for Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates; Professor Somaya Hosny, Dean for Faculty of Medicine at Suez Canan University; Professor Mohamed Elhassan, Medical Education Specialist at Jazan University; Professor Abdul Majeed Chaudhry, Principal of Lahore Medical and Dental College; Professor Mohammad Hafizullah, Vice Chancellor for Khyber Medical University; and Professor Sohail Naqvi, former executive director for HEC, Pakistan.