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Caveats for high reliability in healthcare

Peter F. Martelli (Sawyer Business School, Suffolk University, Boston, Massachusetts, USA)
Peter E. Rivard (Sawyer Business School, Suffolk University, Boston, Massachusetts, USA)
Karlene H. Roberts (Haas School of Business, University of California Berkeley, Berkeley, California, USA)

Journal of Health Organization and Management

ISSN: 1477-7266

Article publication date: 2 August 2018

Issue publication date: 3 September 2018




Given the pace of industry change and the rapid diffusion of high reliability organization (HRO) approaches, lags and divergences have arisen between research and practice in healthcare. The purpose of this paper is to explore several of these theory-practice gaps and propose implications for research and practice.


Classic and cutting-edge HRO literature is applied to analyze two industry trends: delivery system integration, and the confluence of patient-as-consumer and patient-centered care.


Highly reliable integrated delivery systems will likely function very differently from classic HRO organizations. Both practitioners and researchers should address conditions such as how a system is bounded, how reliable the system should be and how interdependencies are handled. Additionally, systems should evaluate the added uncertainty and variability introduced by enhanced agency on the part of patients/families in decision making and in processes of care.

Research limitations/implications

Dramatic changes in the sociotechnical environment are influencing the coupling and interactivity of system elements in healthcare. Researchers must address the maintenance of reliability across organizations and the migration of decision-making power toward patients and families.

Practical implications

As healthcare systems integrate, managers attempting to apply HRO principles must recognize how these systems present new and different reliability-related challenges and opportunities.


This paper provides a starting point for the advancement of research and practice in high-reliability healthcare by providing an in-depth exploration of the implications of two major industry trends.



The authors gratefully acknowledge feedback from Paul Schulman and members of the UC-Berkeley Center for Catastrophic Risk Management.


Martelli, P.F., Rivard, P.E. and Roberts, K.H. (2018), "Caveats for high reliability in healthcare", Journal of Health Organization and Management, Vol. 32 No. 5, pp. 674-690.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2018, Emerald Publishing Limited

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