As we work with a wide variety of clients across the country and around the world, we have been noticing that a significant number of organisations have posted information indicating that “safety is a top priority” or words to that effect. While this attention to safety, both patient and employee, is laudable the fact that it is a priority is somewhat concerning.

The definition of a priority is “a thing that is regarded as more important than another.” Organisational priorities are externally imposed on employees and this automatically creates a condition of “buy-in” rather than ownership. These priorities can be driven by circumstances which end up leading to a change in priorities.

Clearly, that is not how most organisations would really want safety to be perceived. We know for certain that patient safety is still a critical issue in health care delivery and we have a long way to go to achieve systems that are truly safe. A U.S. Senate panel noted last year that preventable medical errors in hospitals are the third leading cause of death in the United States. Only heart disease and cancer kill more Americans. A study in the Journal of Patient Safety concluded that as many as 440,000 people die each year from preventable medical errors in hospital. What is more, many patients die from preventable mistakes outside of hospital.

With safety as a priority in so many organisations, how are these numbers still possible?

One explanation may be the very fact that organisations have safety classified as a priority. So what’s wrong with safety as a priority? The answer is that priorities change and move up and down our lists. What was a priority today may be replaced by something different tomorrow. Financial conditions may change creating new priorities, services may change or personnel may change — all impacting the priority list. But the importance of providing safe care for our patients and safe working conditions for our employees NEVER changes, so safety shouldn’t really be a priority.

Instead of designating safety as a priority we should consider it a core value. Core values are those principles that are at the very essense of our organisations and do not do not change from time-to-time, person-to-person, or situation-to-situation. Core values are those values that form the foundation on which we perform work and conduct ourselves and are the practises we should use every day in everything we do. For healthcare, everything we do should start and end with patient and employee safety at the forefront of our actions and this should occur throughout the organisation from the CEO to the newest entry-level employee.

While that is a significant undertaking for any organisation we can and should address this in our own “business of pharmacy.” With medicines being a leading cause of medical error, we should work to make safety a core value in every one of our “pharmacy businesses” and to provide care and services that are safe for our patients as well as our employees. It is entirely possible for us to provide care that produces no medicine errors causing patients harm.

Have we looked at our pharmacy practises and processes through the lens of safety as a core value? Have we challenged our internal processes, automation and software in terms of maximum safety? Have we considered new ways of thinking and innovations in terms of safety? Have we used external resources to analyse our internal systems with a “fresh pair of eyes” and an objective perspective? When we can say an emphatic “yes” to each of these questions, our businesses of pharmacy can be the model for safety as a core value for the larger health care community.