Editor’s Notebook: Proust and Patient Safety


May / June 2005

Editor’s Notebook

Proust and Patient Safety

Can you imagine the chairs of a patient safety conference in the U.S. including a quote from Marcel Proust in the introduction to the published proceedings? Probably not, but here it is from “Healthcare Systems Ergonomics and Patient Safety: Human Factors, a Bridge Between Care and Cure”:

Medicine being a compendium of successive and contradictory mistakes of medical practitioners, when we summon the wisest of them to our aid, the chances are that we may be relying on a scientific truth the error of which will be recognized in a few years’ time. So that to believe in medicine would be the height of folly, if not to believe in it were not greater folly still, for from this mass of errors, there have emerged in the course of time many truths.

The Guermantes Way, Marcel Proust (1920)

The proceedings are from a conference called Healthcare Systems Ergonomics and Patient Safety (www.heps2005.org), which I attended earlier this spring in Florence, Italy. Three hundred people representing 22 countries came together for more than 100 presentations, sincere discussion, and open bottles of wine at buffet-style lunch each day. The conference was organized by the Italian Ergonomics Society, the Italian Society for Quality in Healthcare, and various regional agencies in Tuscany. Organizations from other countries endorsed the meeting, including the National Patient Safety Agency in the U.K., the International Ergonomics Association, and AHRQ in the U.S. The idea for an international conference came to the organizers soon after the regional government of Tuscany decided to create a center for patient safety in Florence and to “implement a clinical risk management apparatus” in all hospitals and healthcare organizations in the region.

All conference sessions were conducted in English with simultaneous translation to Italian available through headsets in the main auditorium. At the time, I guessed that the audience included a large number of people who were new to the topic of patient safety. Now, I doubt that initial impression and wonder if the challenge of foreign language communication contributed to my sense that some people were struggling with new ideas. The presentations were of very high quality, and the dedication of attendees was without question. A conference organizer from France commented poignantly at the end of the final plenary session that he hoped the conference would continue annually because this work, in Europe at least, can be a lonely pursuit.

I look forward to following the international safety and quality story and informing readers of Patient Safety and Quality Healthcare (PSQH) about how this work is advancing in other areas of the world, even if most of my travel is via the Internet, not Alitalia. PSQH itself travels well: As quickly as I could settle stacks of the January/February issue on the registration counter in Florence, copies disappeared into briefcases to begin their journeys to all corners of the globe.