How to undertake a root cause analysis investigation to improve patient safety
Intended for healthcare professionals
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How to undertake a root cause analysis investigation to improve patient safety

Elizabeth Haxby Lead clinician in clinical risk, Royal Brompton Hospital, London, England
Caroline Shuldham Independent consultant and chair, RCNi Editorial Advisory Board, Surrey, England

Rationale and key points

Root cause analysis is a tool that can be used when determining how and why a patient safety incident has occurred. Incidents that usually require a root cause analysis include the unexpected death of a patient, serious pressure ulcers, falls that result in injury, and some infections and medication errors. This article outlines the stages of the investigation process for undertaking a root cause analysis.

Root causes are the fundamental issues that led to the occurrence of an incident and can be identified using a systematic approach to investigation. Contributory factors related to the incident may also be identified.

Crucial questions in a root cause analysis are: what happened? How did it happen? And why did it happen?

Undertaking a root cause analysis can assist in identifying areas for change and developing recommendations, with the aim of providing safe patient care.

Reflective activity

‘How to’ articles can help update your practice and ensure it remains evidence-based. Apply this article to your practice. Reflect on and write a short account of:

A patient safety incident that has occurred in your clinical practice, such as the unexpected death of a patient, a fall that resulted in injury, a serious pressure ulcer, an infection or a medication error. What happened next? Was a root cause analysis undertaken and what was the outcome of this?

How you can support your colleagues to undertake a root cause analysis after a patient safety incident occurs.

Nursing Standard. 32, 20, 41-46. doi: 10.7748/ns.2018.e10859



Peer review

This article has been subject to external double-blind peer review and checked for plagiarism using automated software

Conflict of interest

None declared

Contributing to the How to series

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Received: 02 March 2017

Accepted: 16 October 2017

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