How Conflict Affects Patient Safety

Healthcare environments are supposed to be peaceful. Yet disruptive behavior can be more prevalent than in other workplaces, with the number of conflicts about 30 percent higher in the medical professions than for other occupations.

The high stress nature of healthcare can often breed conflict. Patient care, after all, requires quick decisions and involves long hours and teamwork. Yet with many healthcare organizations more cost conscious than ever, nurses may have to work even longer shifts and assume more responsibilities. That can fray nerves and shorten tempers.

Putting Patients at Risk

Small issues may resolve themselves, but many others call for management intervention. There can be consequences for patients if healthcare organizations allow disputes to fester. Approximately 32 percent of administrators linked an adverse event to disputes among staff members.

For patients under the care of nurses whose minds may be on staff conflicts, the consequences can be dire, including issues such as missed medications or overdoses. Consider one recent example of a bullied young nurse who accidently allowed a patient to receive too great a dosage from a self-administering pain machine after overhearing others snipe about her ineffectiveness. The medication error sent the patient’s oxygen saturation level plummeting and resulted in a trip to intensive care.

Likewise, a dismissive environment jeopardized the care of a 57-year-old teacher with a suspicious mole on her shoulder. Here, an anesthetist, who had a reputation for being difficult, and a nurse who worked directly for him tuned out the concerns of a second nurse. 

The second nurse who entered the operating room after prep work was already underway, pointed out that the doctor was administering the local anesthesia to the wrong shoulder. But the doctor and the first nurse dismissed these concerns, and the second nurse was unwilling to challenge the pair.

The procedure was delayed several weeks to the patient’s dismay.  If past experiences with the anesthetist had been aired, the nurse who tried to raise the alarm bells likely would have felt comfortable in speaking up more forcefully and could have helped avert the troubling delay.

Learning Conflict Resolution

Unfortunately, ill-equipped managers may do whatever is most expedient to resolve a conflict. This may result in a short-term solution to a problem, but solid conflict management techniques are important to ensure that there is a safe, professional environment.

That said, it’s easy to see how an understanding of conflict management can be invaluable not only in maintaining staff harmony but also in ensuring patients receive high-quality care. That’s more likely when healthcare workers’ focus is on patients instead of disagreements with coworkers.

Creighton University’s online Master of Science in Negotiation and Conflict Resolution offers a concentration in Health Care Collaboration, in which students learn a myriad of strategies for solving disputes in health care. These skills can help them head off problems and fill leadership roles. Outstanding managers know how to avoid or at least minimize conflicts. To find out more about effectively managing disputes in the health care setting, request more information today.