Reports From the Field

Leading for High Reliability During the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Pilot Quality Improvement Initiative to Identify Challenges Faced and Lessons Learned



From the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (all authors), and Cognosante, LLC, Falls Church, VA (Dr. Murray, Dr. Sawyer, and Jessica Fankhauser).


Objective: The COVID-19 pandemic posed unprecedented leadership challenges to health care organizations worldwide, especially those on the journey to high reliability. The objective of this pilot quality improvement initiative was to describe the experiences of medical center leaders continuing along the journey to high reliability during the pandemic.

Methods: A convenience sample of Veterans Health Administration medical center directors at facilities that had initiated the journey to high reliability prior to or during the COVID-19 pandemic were asked to complete a confidential survey to explore the challenges experienced and lessons learned.

Results: Of the 35 potential participants, 15 completed the confidential web-based survey. Five major themes emerged from participants’ responses: (1) managing competing priorities, (2) staying committed, (3) adapting and overcoming, (4) prioritizing competing demands, and (5) maintaining momentum.

Conclusion: This pilot quality improvement initiative provides some insight into the challenges experienced and lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic to help inform health care leaders’ responses during crises they may encounter along the journey to becoming a high reliability organization.

Keywords: HRO, leadership, patient safety.

Health care leaders worldwide agree that the COVID-19 pandemic has presented one of the most challenging leadership tests encountered in many generations,1,2 creating a widespread crisis of unprecedented scope and scale for health care systems globally.2,3 COVID-19 has posed many challenges and obstacles for health care leaders, including overworked, overstressed, and socially isolated employees; expedited hiring to ensure adequate staffing; reallocation of employees to other units; supply shortages such as personal protective equipment; changing polices related to safety protocols; modifying operations; reorganizing facilities to care for large volumes of critically ill patients; and ethical challenges.4-8 Health care systems were required to create and implement new clinical, operational, and staffing protocols that extended capabilities far beyond conventional standards of care and crisis response operations.9 To provide a picture of the impact of COVID-19 on the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), as of March 3, 2023, the VHA has fully vaccinated more than 4.7 million individuals, including 4.3 million veterans and 320,936 federal employees.10,11

Maintaining continuous progress toward advancing high reliability organization (HRO) principles and practices can be especially challenging during crises of unprecedented scale such as the pandemic. HROs must be continually focused on achieving safety, quality, and efficiency goals by attending to the 3 pillars of HRO: culture, leadership, and continuous process improvement. HROs promote a culture where all staff across the organization watch for and report any unsafe conditions before these conditions pose a greater risk in the workplace. Hospital leaders, from executives to frontline managers, must be cognizant of all systems and processes that have the potential to affect patient care.12 All of the principles of HROs must continue without fail to ensure patient safety; these principles include preoccupation with failure, anticipating unexpected risks, sensitivity to dynamic and ever-changing operations, avoiding oversimplifications of identified problems, fostering resilience across the organization, and deferring to those with the expertise to make the best decisions regardless of position, rank, or title.12,13 Given the demands faced by leaders during crises with unprecedented disruption to normal operating procedures, it can be especially difficult to identify systemic challenges and apply lessons learned in a timely manner. However, it is critical to identify such lessons in order to continuously improve and to increase preparedness for subsequent crises.13,14

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic’s unprecedented nature in recent history, a review of the literature produced little evidence exploring the challenges experienced and lessons learned by health care leaders, especially as it relates to implementing or sustaining HRO journeys during the COVID-19 pandemic. Related literature published to date consists of editorials on reliability, uncertainty, and the management of errors15; patient safety and high reliability preventive strategies16; and authentic leadership.17 Five viewpoints were published on HROs and maladaptive stress behaviors,18 mindful organizing and organizational reliability,19 the practical essence of HROs,20 embracing principles of HROs in crisis,8 and using observation and high reliability strategies when facing an unprecedented safety threat.21 Finally, the authors identified 2 studies that used a qualitative research approach to explore leadership functions within an HRO when managing crises22 and organizational change in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.23 Due to the paucity of available information, the authors undertook a pilot quality improvement (QI) initiative to address this knowledge gap.

The aim of this initiative was to gain a better understanding of the challenges experienced, lessons learned, and recommendations to be shared by VHA medical center directors (MCDs) of health care facilities that had initiated the journey to high reliability before or during the COVID-19 pandemic. The authors hope that this information will help health care leaders across both governmental and nongovernmental organizations, nationally and globally, to prepare for future pandemics, other unanticipated crises (eg, natural disasters, terrorist attacks), and major change initiatives (eg, electronic health record modernization) that may affect the delivery of safe, high-quality, and effective patient care. The initiative is described using the SQUIRE 2.0 guidelines.24,25


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