Jan 4, 2017 at 12:00am ET By Alyssa Walker

Practice makes perfect, but not without mistakes.  Too often in medicine, mistakes come at human expense.  The medical “practice” will soon have a new breed of experts in healthcare quality and safety.  Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine recently launched the US’s first Healthcare Quality and Safety PhD program.  While master’s level programs in healthcare quality and safety already exist, the PhD level offers professionals a terminal degree—and the chance to teach.

The program focuses on training mid-career and senior healthcare clinicians in the field.  Outside professionals, like engineers and management specialists, teach PhD candidates the best ways to manage quality and safety issues that plague the medical profession.  

Why the push?  The medical community has demonstrated a consistent need for high-quality control and safety—with little specific framework to do so.  Take the example of the EpiPen: in a crisis, it’s too easy for a clinician to inject themselves, rather than the patient.  PhD students in the Northwestern program looked at this problem from all angles, including studying the EpiPen’s design flaws—and the flaws in its user protocols. 

So what’s a PhD in healthcare quality and safety look like?  Teamwork.  Communication.  Physical and cognitive ergonomics.  Research skills.  Evidence-based approaches to program re-design.  How to identify flaws in processes—and how to make them better.  

While Northwestern offers the only PhD in healthcare quality and safety, other schools with master’s programs in the field may follow suit. The School of Public Health and Public Policy at George Washington University offers an innovative master’s in the field, as does the University of Alabama at Birmingham. 

Alyssa Walker is a freelance writer, educator, and nonprofit consultant. She lives in the White Mountains of New Hampshire with her family.

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