Background Interest in human factors has increased across healthcare communities and institutions as the value of human centred design in healthcare becomes increasingly clear. However, as human factors is becoming more prominent, there is growing evidence of confusion about human factors science, both anecdotally and in scientific literature. Some of the misconceptions about human factors may inadvertently create missed opportunities for healthcare improvement. Methods The objective of this article is to describe the scientific discipline of human factors and provide common ground for partnerships between healthcare and human factors communities. Results The primary goal of human factors science is to promote efficiency, safety and effectiveness by improving the design of technologies, processes and work systems. As described in this article, human factors also provides insight on when training is likely (or unlikely) to be effective for improving patient safety. Finally, we outline human factors specialty areas that may be particularly relevant for improving healthcare delivery and provide examples to demonstrate their value. Conclusions The human factors concepts presented in this article may foster interdisciplinary collaborations to yield new, sustainable solutions for healthcare quality and patient safety.