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IAEA Launches Training Material to Strengthen Safety Culture in Medicine


The IAEA has recently launched the Radiation Safety Culture: Trait Talks Handbook, a study manual that offers practical recommendations for medical professionals to strengthen patterns of good behaviour and attitudes that contribute to a safe environment.

“Medical radiation procedures, such as X-rays and radiotherapy, are beneficial in diagnosing illness and destroying cancer, but as long as humans are involved in these procedures, they must also take the necessary precautions to protect their patients, colleagues and themselves from potential harmful effects of radiation. One way to do that is by building a robust safety culture,” said IAEA Radiation Protection Specialist Debbie Gilley, who oversaw the development of the Handbook.

Traits of a strong safety culture

Radiologists, radiation oncologists and interventional cardiologists are some of the top scientists in the world, but when it comes to ensuring patient safety, technical knowledge is not the only important factor. Medical staff behaviours and attitudes, and how they build relationships with their colleagues and patients are the foundation of radiation safety culture.

Radiation safety traits, which can be both personal and organizational, are patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving that prioritize safety. “Ten traits were identified and each one encourages a certain pattern of thinking that prioritizes safety,” Gilley explained. “Reviewing the traits collectively can facilitate conversation and build trust among medical staff and practitioners, which is imperative for radiation procedures.”

Imaging and therapy medical teams that embody strong safety culture values are constantly evaluating the effectiveness of their radiation protection and patient safety measures. Traits that reinforce radiation protection and patient safety are identified in their daily engagement with each other and their patients and are promoted in this handbook.

Each trait is explained in the context of scenarios in radiotherapy, radiology, fluoroscopy or nuclear medicine to encourage discussion and thought amongst medical professionals on how the presence of each trait affects working methods and outcomes. By reflecting on which traits are present in organizations and which traits need further improvement as a team, individuals can play an active role in reinforcing safety culture at their medical institution. All ten traits, explained with accompanying exercises in the handbook, are listed on the IAEA web page on Radiation Safety Culture in Medicine.

IAEA efforts to enhance safety culture in medicine

The value of safety culture in nuclear installations has been long recognized, but the necessity of radiation safety culture in medicine does not always receive the attention it deserves, Gilley said.

The Bonn Call for Action, which seeks to foster coordinated work to address issues arising in radiation protection in medicine, specifically identified strengthening safety culture as one of its core aims.

In 2012, the IAEA established SAFRON, a voluntary reporting system that allows medical professionals to learn from incidents in radiotherapy and radionuclide therapy at other medical facilities in order to prevent errors in the future. SAFRON also assists medical facilities in promoting safety culture and improving patient safety by analysis of incidents.

In 2019, the IAEA held a competition entitled Towards a Strong Radiation Safety Culture in Medicine, which invited health care professionals to submit videos about how they promote a robust safety culture in their workplaces. The winning entries can be found here and are integrated throughout the handbook for each trait as examples of strategies and good practices.

Darin O’Keefe, Diagnostic Physics Leader at Christchurch Hospital in New Zealand, was a winner of the video competition for trait number two, Questioning Attitude. “Our Radiation Oncology Services team has increased the efficacy of cancer treatment through weekly audits with a multidisciplinary team of radiation oncologists, radiation therapists and at least one radiation oncology medical physicist. The message I wanted to convey is that a questioning attitude does not undermine authority or a person’s experience, and all professionals should be open to those sorts of discussions.”

The Radiation Safety Culture: Trait Talks Handbook is available for free download here. Find out more about safety culture in medicine here.

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