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What is risk management in healthcare?

Discover the crucial role of risk management in healthcare leadership and how it ensures safe and efficient operations. Explore the importance of identifying, assessing, and mitigating risks to protect patients, staff, and the organisation's reputation.


 When it comes to delivering high-quality healthcare, being an effective leader requires you to make the right decisions, set the most appropriate priorities, motivate others and ensure activities under your remit to function soundly and as efficiently as possible. How does risk management fit in? 

What is risk management in healthcare? 


If you already work in or aspire to hold leadership and management positions within the UK National Health Services (NHS) or other country’s health and social care providers, you’ll be aware of the importance not only of ensuring things run smoothly and safely, but also continuously evaluating and improving the quality of healthcare systems and services.  


As well as overseeing day-to-day activities, healthcare leaders need to quickly identify and competently deal with any problems and challenges which may arise. Planning, ideally averting and preparing to tackle such issues, both likely and unlikely, is essentially what risk management is all about.  


It concerns the clinical and administrative systems, processes, procedures, and reporting structures designed to detect, monitor, assess, mitigate, and prevent risks to patients and staff. It could be something as simple as ensuring health practitioners and visitors to health establishments regularly use hand sanitiser to avoid spreading infections to patients.


Alternatively, in the event of a major incident which involves hundreds or thousands of casualties with a range of injuries, triage systems and multi-agency cooperation may be needed. 


Are leadership and management different? Does it matter in healthcare? Read our guide:


Why is risk management in healthcare important? 


Managing risk is an ongoing strategic and operational responsibility in any healthcare setting as it informs the decision-making that affects everything from training and recruitment to resource allocation and procurement. 


At a strategic level, medical risk management protects patients and staff from medical errors or harm, and the organisation from any financial or legal repercussions, such as a lawsuit or cyber attack, both of which could cause irreparable damage to the organisation’s reputation.  


Operationally, it provides guidance and clarity to the many individuals involved in delivering healthcare services, for example, through surgical checklists, cleaning regimes and disinfection procedures or monitoring essential training and certification.


This enables all members of staff to work more effectively together, providing a safe, quality service to service users and staff, employing the same shared (and understood) systems, procedures and processes and proactively identifying and dealing with risks as and when they happen. 

How do you develop a strategy for risk management in healthcare? 


Most larger healthcare establishments will have at least one role dedicated to quality, compliance, risk management and/or patient safety, however, all healthcare staff will probably be expected to participate in the identification, assessment, planning and management of clinical and non-clinical risks.  


As a head of service, team leader or other senior manager, you’ll be expected to encourage risk awareness among staff and be required to keep and regularly review a detailed risk register, prioritising risks and escalating any risks that actually occur in accordance with any pre-prepared protocols and procedures. 


The volume and variety of risks is potentially huge and be aware that they will exist at different levels, for example:  

  • Strategic risks: risks that affect ability to deliver corporate strategy or function as an organisation as a whole. 

  • Corporate operational risks: risks that affect the delivery of an operational plan or common team risks that require a corporate response. 

  • Team risks: risks related to the delivery of departmental operations and objectives. 

  • Programmes and project risks: risks associated with specific activities, which may be short, medium or long-term.


It is likely that your employer will have its own guidance for risk management, so always check first. If not, the UK-based Health and Safety Executive (HSE) outlines five key steps for risk management which provide a useful starting point: 

  • Identify risks: what might cause harm, what practices are safe/unsafe, are any dangerous substances or equipment in use? 
  • Assess the risks: who might be harmed and how, what is the likelihood of this happening, how and who can prevent or control the risks, what action is needed? 
  • Control the risks: can you get rid of the risk altogether, is what you are already doing sufficient, what more needs to be done? 
  • Record your findings: document the risks in a risk register, stating who might be harmed and how, the likelihood and what is being done to manage the risks? 
  • Review the controls: based on recent or past events, does anything need to be changed, are there any new risks that need adding, has the risk register been effective? 


Why should I study the MSc in Healthcare Leadership? 


Central to the curriculum of our MSc in Healthcare Leadership is the development of your ability to reflect on the practices, personality and approaches required for good leadership in a variety of healthcare systems worldwide. In doing so, you’ll develop the same perspective, context, critical thinking, analytical and decision-making skills required to manage risks and enhance your own practice and that of those around you. 


The Supporting Change, Innovation, and Problem-Solving module will be of particular relevance, teaching you how to evaluate the effectiveness of strategies to promote and implement change, be that managing risk or anything else.


Promoting Quality and Safety in Healthcare is focused on evidence-based models of best practice to improve the quality of care delivery and maximise patient safety, while the Global Perspectives on Healthcare Policy module will also help you better understand how to develop policies, including risk management, at the macro, meso, and micro level. 


Are you ready to take your healthcare or clinical career to the next level? Discover the University of Hull Online's part-time MSc in Healthcare Leadership: 


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