Why is safeguarding so important in health care?

Health professional holding a child patient

By Skills for Health | 4 October 2023

Safeguarding has always been entrenched in healthcare practices and has long been part of the mandatory training programme for anyone working in health, social care, education and other sectors with possible contact with vulnerable persons. With this kind of familiarity, it can feel like another buzzword, but what really IS safeguarding?

Stopping to really consider the meaning of safeguarding can help us understand the importance of this integral component of good, effective, safe care. Safeguarding is an inherent part of any caring encounter, but it has been formalised as mandatory training on a background of serious, sometimes tragic events. The foundations underpinning safeguarding policies are incredibly important and have led to life-saving interventions.

Safeguarding – in law

Local and national policies in healthcare services reflect legislation designed to identify and protect at-risk adults and children.

The Care Act 2014 describes 6 key principles for safeguarding adults: empowerment; prevention; proportionality; protection; partnership; accountability. These are, broadly, designed to ensure that safeguarding practice is person-centred, proactive, and appropriate. The Care Act 2014 is designed to ensure that there is seamless integration between different agencies involved in a person’s care; with a multidisciplinary approach, with health and social care workers all taking a cohesive, interoperative and integrated approach, problems can be identified and managed early and effectively. Previously, granular and disjointed approaches from health and social care agencies have meant that identifying vulnerable people did not necessarily mean that those people were given the ongoing support and protection they needed.

Other legislation which relates to safeguarding can include the Human Rights Act 1998, Sexual Offences Act 2003, Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006, the Children and Social Work Act 2017, and more. With such a wide variety of legislation designed to support the legal protection of vulnerable people, it’s important that workers have a good understanding of the backing for their practice.

What does safeguarding mean for healthcare workers

Healthcare workers meet the most vulnerable people in society, often when they are at their most in need of support. People enter formal care settings due to illness, injury, or sometimes simply when they have reached the kind of crisis point in their everyday lives that brings them into health or social care services. For some, this is the result of abuse or neglect – either by themselves or those who are meant to be caring for them.

The onus on workers encountering people in vulnerable situations is to recognise problems, to mount a proportionate response, and to report and record the facts. A proportionate response may mean simply sharing the information with other appropriate agencies, or it could be the start of a rapid response to an ongoing dangerous situation.

A robust grounding in the legislation and options for response to safeguarding concerns empowers workers to manage these situations with confidence.

Making every encounter count

Frontline healthcare workers are likely to meet vulnerable people who have reached a crisis point where their physical or mental health is precarious enough to require acute services. Workers who go into people’s homes – emergency services, community nurses and health visitors – are likely to have insight into the kind of living conditions or interactions that raise alarm bells. But safeguarding is relevant to everyone who meets the public, in any role. Anyone who has any contact with the public may just be the person who someone decides to disclose concerns to or may just be the person to notice that something isn’t quite right. Having some safeguarding training can give that person the skills and confidence to speak out.

Making every contact count’ is an initiative that aims to encourage healthcare workers to take every opportunity available for health promotion and support. Although originally designed as an approach to healthy living interventions, it can easily translate to safeguarding practices. Health and social care workers are uniquely positioned to identify areas of concern, whether from subtle cues – the unkempt looked-after person, the unsafe home environment, or more explicit evidence like suspicious injuries or disclosure of abuse.

Empowerment – a multi-level approach

‘Empowerment’ is one of the key principles of the Care Act 2014. Ideally, health and social care workers aim to empower individuals to live without fear, to speak freely without retribution, and to take an active part in choices over their own lives and care. Empowerment can also be used to describe the aims for the workers, too. It isn’t always easy to challenge trauma, neglect and abuse. An individual worker shouldn’t be put in a position where they feel unable to help or unsure what to do. Targeted training for any role within a health or social care organisation can give workers the tools they need to deal with any problems they identify. Serious issues can only be tackled by people who have the confidence and support to do so, in a position of safety.

Safeguarding training can empower staff to identify and tackle concerns. Staff who have had effective safeguarding training should feel confident; they will understand the right avenues for seeking support, and how to elicit a multi-agency support network. Interacting with people who have had safeguarding issues raised can be difficult; it may mean meeting vulnerable people in clearly unsafe situations, but it may also mean meeting the people who are neglecting or abusing the people in their care. Lone worker safety training and training in managing conflict can be an important adjunct to safeguarding.

Safeguarding training

A trained, competent, and confident healthcare workforce who know how to approach safeguarding issues, who understand their duties and multi-agency referrals, can help break patterns of abuse and neglect. Health and social care workers can change vulnerable people’s lives, preventing trauma and tragedy.

Skills for Health’s Safeguarding offerings are designed to give health and social care workers the toolkit they need to recognise and respond to concerns. Three tiers of training mean that eLearning is tailored towards the likely safeguarding needs for different roles within the sector. Separating safeguarding training into child and adult streams helps to consolidate an understanding of the legislation behind safeguarding and the differing avenues for support.

Learn more about our Safeguarding eLearning courses.


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