Background: In its 1999 report To Err Is Human: Building a Safer Health System, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) suggested that between 44,000 and 98,000 Americans die annually as a result of medical errors. The report urged health care institutions to break the silence surrounding such errors and to implement changes that would promote a culture of safety.
Objective: Our aim in conducting this content analysis of AJN articles was to explore the nurse's historical and contemporary role in promoting patient safety. We chose to focus on AJN because, as the oldest continuously published nursing journal, it provided a unique opportunity for us to view trends in nursing practice over more than 100 years.
Methods: We reviewed all AJN tables of contents from 1900 through 2015, identifying for inclusion articles with titles that suggested a focus on nursing care, patient safety, or clinical content. We then read and analyzed each of the final 1,086 articles over a period of nine months.
Findings: Our content analysis indicates that the early articles (from 1900 through 1920) focused on such safety measures as asepsis and the newly understood germ theory. In the 1930s, articles proposed methods for preventing medication errors and encouraged the development of written procedures to standardize care. During World War II, nurse authors identified improved patient survival rates with the use of “shock wards” and recovery rooms. The 1950s saw the emergence of progressive patient care initiatives, through which patients were assigned to various levels of care (intensive, intermediate, self, long-term, or home care) based on patient acuity. The 1960s brought increasingly complex equipment and medication regimens, which created safety problems. Hospital-acquired infections were recognized. Unit-dose medication was instituted in the 1970s. In the next two decades, medication and nursing-procedure safety were emphasized. From 2000 to 2015, articles looked beyond human performance as causes of health care errors to systemic factors, such as poor communication, patient–nurse ratios, provider skill mix, disruptive or inappropriate provider behavior, shift work, and long working hours.
Conclusions: Emphasis on patient safety increased as patient care became more complex. As nurses developed a professional identity, they often put a spotlight on safety concerns and solutions. The IOM report, which encouraged research focused on systemic solutions to errors, was instrumental in furthering the very culture of safety that the nursing profession had championed.