Human Factors and Cancer Care

Reading time: 4 minutes

Jordan E. Rogers, Andrew C. Griggs, Elizabeth H. Lazzara

Research Engineering and Applied Collaborations in Healthcare (REACH) Lab

Cancer is a prevalent disease that manifests drastically differently across individuals due to the interplay of multiple factors. Due to the disease’s multifaceted nature, the provision of safe, quality care within cancer is contingent upon the collaboration of an interdisciplinary team comprised of medical and Human Factors experts.

What is Human Factors?

Human Factors is the study of the intersection of humans and systems. The field of Human Factors is similar to that of User Experience, Human-Computer Interaction, Anthropology, Psychology, Ergonomics, Industrial Engineering, and Systems Engineering. Human Factors professionals dissect tasks, products, equipment, processes, environments, and systems in order to make them compatible with the needs, abilities, and limitations of people. This effort results in enhanced satisfaction, effectiveness, productivity, comfort, and safety for all parties. Although Human Factors has been involved in cancer care to a limited extent, very little training in Human Factors is provided within the realm of healthcare. Consequently, there are many misconceptions pertaining to Human Factors.

Misconceptions of Human Factors

1.       Human Factors is synonymous with Human Resources. Human Resources deals with the recruitment and management of employees and personnel; it is not the study of how humans and systems interact.

2.       Human Factors is simply the factors of humans (i.e., characteristics of individuals). Individual differences are the ways in which people vary with respect to their knowledge, skills, attitudes, and characteristics. The factors of humans or individual differences are a specific discipline commonly studied within personality psychology.

3.       Human Factors is essentially ‘factoring the human’. Human Factors extends beyond the human and looks at the tasks, tools (hardware and software), environments, and organization in addition to the human and how the human interacts with all of those components.

4.       Human Factors professionals all have the same expertise or skillset. Even though there are certainly commonalities among Human Factors professionals, such professionals have areas of specialty akin to the subspecialties within medicine.

5.       Human Factors is only pertinent in high-stakes domains. Clearly, applications of Human Factors within high-stakes domains deal with more potentially devastating consequences; however, Human Factors is applicable across a wide variety of tasks.

What does Human Factors have to do with cancer care?

Cancer care is complex and includes many different processes and providers. Work has been done to better understand the various stages of cancer care as well as the various individuals, teams, and synergy involved (Zapka, Taplin, Solberg, & Manos, 2003). Through clearly describing types and phases of care, researchers have been able to identify what potential failures may occur during care and how they may be resolved. To facilitate the improvement of care and resolution of errors, Human Factors professionals are equipped with methods to empirically investigate a variety of issues arising from the tools used by providers, environmental characteristics, human capabilities and limitations, as well as the tasks or processes associated with cancer treatment.

  1. Technology – In both diagnosis and treatment, cancer care often employs highly sophisticated technology such as the equipment associated with modern imaging techniques or robotic surgery interventions. Humans must utilize this technology reliably and effectively in order to provide care, yet many issues can arise from negative interactions with these systems. Human Factors professionals evaluate the tools used in cancer care and provide recommendations to minimize error or improve users’ experience. 
  1. Environments – Patients and providers alike must navigate a variety of environments within modern cancer care. These environments often include characteristics that impede optimal care or negatively impact the patient experience such as distracting noise from medical equipment or a lack of proper tools and amenities. Human Factors professionals assist in designing environments that match patient and provider expectations while minimizing antecedents of errors, accidents, and discomfort.
  2. Human Capabilities and Limitations – Human Factors considers the inherent capabilities and limitations of humans concerning cancer care. Such considerations can include cognitive processes like attention or burnout, as well as physiological processes such as fatigue. Human Factors professionals seek to provide recommendations to optimally match humans and tasks to prevent errors resulting from excessive cognitive or physical demands.
  3. Tasks or Processes – The tasks and processes associated with cancer care often necessitate standardized protocols. Human Factors professionals work with providers to improve practice through standardization of these procedures. These modifications include, handoffs and the development of memory aides, such as checklists or mnemonics, in order to facilitate effective care. Human Factors professionals also assist to design more user-friendly processes concerning patients, such as prescription management portals.

Recognizing the complexity that exists within the different stages of care, Human Factors takes a systemic approach to understand, investigate, and ultimately strengthen care to enable better processes and outcomes for cancer care providers, patients, and their families.


Zapka, J. G., Taplin, S. H., Solberg, L. I., & Manos, M. M. (2003). A framework for improving the quality of cancer care: The case of breast and cervical cancer screening. Cancer Epidemiology and Biomarkers Prevention, 12(1), 4–13. Retrieved from

Edited by Michael Marand

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