Improving practice in safeguarding at the interface between hospital services and children’s social care: a mixed-methods case study

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


  • David Wastell
  • Suzanne Smith
  • Christopher Hall
  • Emilie Whitaker
  • Geoffrey Debelle
  • Justin Waring

External organisations

  • Durham University
  • University of Nottingham
  • Trust Headquarters, North Manchester General Hospital, Pennine Acute Hospitals Trust, Manchester, UK
  • School of Social Policy, University of Birmingham, Birmingham, UK


Hospital settings have an important impact on children harmed by parents and carers. Concern arises from the capacity of these settings to respond effectively to individual needs despite increased NHS policy awareness and actions on safeguarding. Patient safety initiatives have rarely modelled in detail the social and cultural dynamics of child health settings and children’s safeguarding. This study is focused on supporting and evaluating clinician-led service design in an acute trust. A suite of initiatives and artefacts has been designed, based on sociotechnical principles, on the premise that only a thorough understanding of human, social and organisational challenges will afford effective solutions.

The study addresses the following primary question: ‘Can a safeguarding culture be designed within the hospital environment that will provide the conditions for the detection of children at risk of abuse and support protective actions before discharge, including collaboration with external agencies?’ Objectives include the development of a sociologically rich understanding of why diagnostic failures and communication breakdowns occur; the design of a suite of integrated interventions for promoting a positive safety culture, following a user-centred approach; and the evaluation of the effectiveness of this package, including its generalisability across sites.

The study took place in two sites: the primary site where the initiatives were developed and a further site with the original intention of transferring developments. The investigation follows a broad design science approach. The evaluation of a design intervention relies on a rigorous understanding of the realities of everyday practice, and the study thus draws on mixed methods to examine the impact of service redesign on cultures and practices.

The data suggest that safeguarding children can become mainstream patient safety business. Board support is vital. In our primary site, there has been a steady integration of learning from serious case reviews and other child protection-related processes with ‘patient safety’-related incidents, with growing recognition that similar systemic issues impact on both domains. Making use of a familiar vocabulary to redescribe safeguarding as a safety issue, and thus as something fundamental to the functions of an acute hospital, has been part of the success. The data suggest that persistence, resilience and vigilance from the safeguarding leadership and executive teams are crucial. Current policy includes the development of the Child Protection Information Sharing project, which is intended to improve information flow between the NHS, particularly hospitals and children’s social care. The findings from this study suggest the importance of good design, piloting, incrementalism and a thorough empirical engagement with everyday practices during implementation of this and any future information systems based reform.

Safeguarding takes place in a complex system and even minor changes within any part of that system can impact on the rest in unpredictable ways. It is important that managers adopt a ‘design attitude’ and seek to mitigate unintended consequences through careful experimentation. The findings suggest the need for the design of systems to enhance communication and not simply to ‘share information’. Technological solutions impact on everyday decision-making and can have unintended consequences. Attention to forces of change and stasis in health settings, the factors affecting technology transfer and the impact of the configuration of local authority services are suggested as a key priorities for future research.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-164
JournalHealth Services and Delivery Research
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2015