Safety Specialists: A New Career for Experienced Nurses

Safety Specialists: A New Career Path for Experienced NursesEveryone in healthcare knows a horror story about errors.

Medication mix-ups, surgeries on the wrong patient or body part, hospital-acquired infections, falls, readmissions and diagnosis errors are the biggies, according to the National Patient Safety Foundation.

The Institute of Medicine’s landmark 1999 study, “To Err is Human, Building a Safer Health System,” revealed how tens of thousands of patients die annually because of medical errors. That report and vast changes since in healthcare delivery, regulation and reform – with more to come – have the industry on a massive safety mission.

Career growth

That’s why you’re seeing more postings for “patient safety specialists.” And if you’re an experienced nurse, this definitely is an emerging career path to explore.

A safety specialist is the professional who will gather everyone involved in an adverse event to debrief them on what happened and how it could have been prevented. The specialist also evaluates evidence and reports, issues updates about notices and findings, educates about techniques, handles simulation exercises and ensures regulatory compliance – to name a few of the duties.

“We work on preventing and correcting,” says Ophelia Byers, RN, MSN, WHNP-BC, safety nurse coordinator in obstetrics at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in New York.

Patient safety specialists are nurses with several years of experience – several job postings indicate at least five years – and at least a bachelor of science degree. At New York-Presbyterian Hospital in New York, for example, safety specialists must have a MSN, says Byers. She’s been a nurse for 13 years – seven of those in obstetrics.

Certification offered

The Certification Board for Professionals in Patient Safety launched the credentialing process for the Certified Professional in Patient Safety certification in March 2012. Candidates need the following educational and experience background to take the exam:

  • a baccalaureate degree or higher and three years of experience that includes time spent in clinical rotations and residency programs;
  • or, an associate degree or its equivalent and five years of experience.

Patient safety specialists typically work in acute-care settings, and how they work varies according to each hospital. For example, some hospitals also have patient safety officers who typically are physicians. A safety specialist may work under the officer, depending on how the hospital handles the positions. Bigger hospitals may have safety specialists in multiple departments.

“The unique element of this role is the relationship across disciplines – bringing disciplines together for education and conversation,” Byers says. “Having that teamwork approach is key in this role.”

About Terry Sheridan

Terry Sheridan is a New England-based freelance writer who has covered business issues for 20 years.


  1. BY Laura Hawkins says:

    I just read the article on pt safety specialists, and was wnting to knw where a perwon wuld be trained for such a position. aI have not been workng in a hospital setting since June 2011. I have been looking at different areas of nursing thast don't actually have me working as a nurse anymore, and into some other aspect of nursing where I could still be used and my nursing credentials will help me. I have worked Med Surg for 8.6 years, amaternal newborn for 8.6, travel nursing and even home helthcare. I have experience in the ER, ICU, CCU and working on a MICU. I have not been working at all since last August, and recently lost my husband. I have had one of the worst years od my life and I can't seem to decide what the next step n my career should be. Could you send me more info on thiw type of work?