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Monday, September 9, 2013

Patient safety, and why the aviation industry comparison doesn't always fly

Patient safety, and why the aviation industry comparison doesn’t always fly

Slowly but surely, patient safety is taking its rightful place at the forefront of American medicine. Ever since the landmark report from the Institute of Medicine in 1999, To Err is Human: Building a Safer Health System, the issue has been gaining increased traction year on year. Dismal patient safety statistics in some hospitals are correctly being highlighted by the media, with pressure growing on senior leadership and administrators to vigorously address any shortcomings. And not just in this country. Earlier this month, the United Kingdom’s National Health Service published a long awaited review on patient safety, which is hoped will lead to a major cultural shift and philosophy of zero-harm for patients.

Hopefully great changes are around the corner. After all, if we cannot feel safe in hospitals, where can we feel safe?

Many of the leading voices of the patient safety movement are quick to draw a comparison with aviation, which has successfully used protocols to make flying a much safer experience over the last few decades, so much so that the airline industry is now considered second to none in terms of safety. I don’t doubt the earnestness of such juxtapositions from health care leaders who are committed to the cause. But as enviable as the aviation industry’s achievements may be, I feel that some of our colleagues may be a bit overzealous in drawing frequent parallels. There are in fact many reasons why a straight comparison between aviation and health care is extremely limited.

Firstly, and quite obviously on a human level, patients are real living people, whereas an airplane is simply a machine. The importance of human contact, empathy, compassion, a willingness to learn and listen to concerns, and the ability to spend adequate time with patients, will always be the first pillar of promoting a culture of safety and thoroughness in clinical settings. Checklists to improve systems are wonderful in mechanical areas like operative care and inserting central lines, but can only go so far without the most important virtues of being a doctor or nurse.

Secondly, apart from the first few haphazard days of early flight after the Wright brothers changed the course of human history, flying has always been relatively safe compared to health care. Some current reports suggest that as many as 1 in 5 patients are harmed in hospitals. That’s a truly staggering and frightening number, and represents a higher baseline from which we need to improve (for some perspective, even during the darkest days of World War II, Allied airplane losses barely approached such high percentages).

Aircraft are engineered to be in the best possible shape before they fly. Patients, on the other hand, are in the worst shape when they enter the doors of the hospital. Medicine is by nature, a much riskier practice than flying. The threshold for inflicting harm is therefore much lower, however unacceptably high today’s statistics may be.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, airlines—or at least the vast majority of them—strive for excellent service and will always have staff to serve you promptly during a flight. The pilot will be totally dedicated to flying the plane, and will not fly without the co-pilot and crew. I remember a flight I took last year from Philadelphia which was delayed because the airline needed to find an extra couple of cabin crew members. The passengers all waited patiently for well over an hour by the gate, and a loud cheer erupted when we finally saw the airline crew arrive! The plane simply would not take off without a complete set of staff.

On the other hand, many frontline health care workers will testify to the fact that patient safety incidents and errors tend to occur when they are struggling with staffing levels and feel grossly overworked. Compare the rest time given to airline staff in between long flights, to the all too common scenario of having over fatigued frontline health care staff in clinical settings. A pilot is also only ever going to fly one plane at a time. Not that it’s realistic for a doctor or nurse to be allocated to just one patient, but the workflow is very different, with health care tasks frequently interrupted with new clinical issues and emergency situations. Consequently, insufficient staffing can have an acute effect on outcomes and the ability to perform safely. Any health care administrator who seriously wants to improve patient safety without first and foremost making sure that their staffing levels in that particular department are adequate, may be doomed to fail (in health care’s defense, it is much easier to plan for the staffing levels needed for a booked flight than the typical unpredictable day in hospital).

So does all this mean that the aviation industry comparison is completely invalid? Absolutely not. Their safety record is one that we can only hope to emulate over time. But the two industries are vastly heterogeneous, and to say that safety in medicine should follow in the path of flying airplanes, grossly oversimplifies a complex problem. It’s highly doubtful that aviation holds all, or even most, of the answers as we strive to make hospitals safer.Suneel Dhand, MD, ACP Member, is a practicing physician in Massachusetts. He has published numerous articles in clinical medicine, covering a wide range of specialty areas including; pulmonology, cardiology, endocrinology, hematology, and infectious disease. He has also authored chapters in the prestigious "5-Minute Clinical Consult" medical textbook. His other clinical interests include quality improvement, hospital safety, hospital utilization, and the use of technology in health care. This post originally appeared at his blog.

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Blog log

Members of the American College of Physicians contribute posts from their own sites to ACP Internistand ACP Hospitalist. Contributors include:

Albert Fuchs, MD
Albert Fuchs, MD, FACP, graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles School of Medicine, where he also did his internal medicine training. Certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine, Dr. Fuchs spent three years as a full-time faculty member at UCLA School of Medicine before opening his private practice in Beverly Hills in 2000.

And Thus, It Begins
Amanda Xi, ACP Medical Student Member, is a first-year medical student at the OUWB School of Medicine, charter class of 2015, in Rochester, Mich., from which she which chronicles her journey through medical training from day 1 of medical school.

Auscultation
Ira S. Nash, MD, FACP, is the senior vice president and executive director of the North Shore-LIJ Medical Group, and a professor of Cardiology and Population Health at Hofstra North Shore-LIJ School of Medicine. He is Board Certified in Internal Medicine and Cardiovascular Diseases and was in the private practice of cardiology before joining the full-time faculty of Massachusetts General Hospital.

Zackary Berger
Zackary Berger, MD, ACP Member, is a primary care doctor and general internist in the Division of General Internal Medicine at Johns Hopkins. His research interests include doctor-patient communication, bioethics, and systematic reviews.

Controversies in Hospital Infection Prevention
Run by three ACP Fellows, this blog ponders vexing issues in infection prevention and control, inside and outside the hospital. Daniel J Diekema, MD, FACP, practices infectious diseases, clinical microbiology, and hospital epidemiology in Iowa City, Iowa, splitting time between seeing patients with infectious diseases, diagnosing infections in the microbiology laboratory, and trying to prevent infections in the hospital. Michael B. Edmond, MD, FACP, is a hospital epidemiologist in Iowa City, IA, with a focus on understanding why infections occur in the hospital and ways to prevent these infections, and sees patients in the inpatient and outpatient settings. Eli N. Perencevich, MD, ACP Member, is an infectious disease physician and epidemiologist in Iowa City, Iowa, who studies methods to halt the spread of resistant bacteria in our hospitals (including novel ways to get everyone to wash their hands).

db's Medical Rants
Robert M. Centor, MD, FACP, contributes short essays contemplating medicine and the health care system.

Suneel Dhand, MD, ACP Member
Suneel Dhand, MD, ACP Member, is a practicing physician in Massachusetts. He has published numerous articles in clinical medicine, covering a wide range of specialty areas including; pulmonology, cardiology, endocrinology, hematology, and infectious disease. He has also authored chapters in the prestigious "5-Minute Clinical Consult" medical textbook. His other clinical interests include quality improvement, hospital safety, hospital utilization, and the use of technology in health care.

DrDialogue
Juliet K. Mavromatis, MD, FACP, provides a conversation about health topics for patients and health professionals.

Dr. Mintz' Blog
Matthew Mintz, MD, FACP, has practiced internal medicine for more than a decade and is an Associate Professor of Medicine at an academic medical center on the East Coast. His time is split between teaching medical students and residents, and caring for patients.

Everything Health
Toni Brayer, MD, FACP, blogs about the rapid changes in science, medicine, health and healing in the 21st century.

FutureDocs
Vineet Arora, MD, FACP, is Associate Program Director for the Internal Medicine Residency and Assistant Dean of Scholarship & Discovery at the Pritzker School of Medicine for the University of Chicago. Her education and research focus is on resident duty hours, patient handoffs, medical professionalism, and quality of hospital care. She is also an academic hospitalist.

Glass Hospital
John H. Schumann, MD, FACP, provides transparency on the workings of medical practice and the complexities of hospital care, illuminates the emotional and cognitive aspects of caregiving and decision-making from the perspective of an active primary care physician, and offers behind-the-scenes portraits of hospital sanctums and the people who inhabit them.

Gut Check
Ryan Madanick, MD, ACP Member, is a gastroenterologist at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, and the Program Director for the GI & Hepatology Fellowship Program. He specializes in diseases of the esophagus, with a strong interest in the diagnosis and treatment of patients who have difficult-to-manage esophageal problems such as refractory GERD, heartburn, and chest pain.

I'm dok
Mike Aref, MD, PhD, FACP, is an academic hospitalist with an interest in basic and clinical science and education, with interests in noninvasive monitoring and diagnostic testing using novel bedside imaging modalities, diagnostic reasoning, medical informatics, new medical education modalities, pre-code/code management, palliative care, patient-physician communication, quality improvement, and quantitative biomedical imaging.

Informatics Professor
William Hersh, MD, FACP, Professor and Chair, Department of Medical Informatics & Clinical Epidemiology, Oregon Health & Science University, posts his thoughts on various topics related to biomedical and health informatics.

David Katz, MD
David L. Katz, MD, MPH, FACP, is an internationally renowned authority on nutrition, weight management, and the prevention of chronic disease, and an internationally recognized leader in integrative medicine and patient-centered care.

Just Oncology
Richard Just, MD, ACP Member, has 36 years in clinical practice of hematology and medical oncology. His blog is a joint publication with Gregg Masters, MPH.

KevinMD
Kevin Pho, MD, ACP Member, offers one of the Web's definitive sites for influential health commentary.

MD Whistleblower
Michael Kirsch, MD, FACP, addresses the joys and challenges of medical practice, including controversies in the doctor-patient relationship, medical ethics and measuring medical quality. When he's not writing, he's performing colonoscopies.

Medical Lessons
Elaine Schattner, MD, FACP, shares her ideas on education, ethics in medicine, health care news and culture. Her views on medicine are informed by her past experiences in caring for patients, as a researcher in cancer immunology, and as a patient who's had breast cancer.

Mired in MedEd
Alexander M. Djuricich, MD, FACP, is the Associate Dean for Continuing Medical Education (CME), and a Program Director in Medicine-Pediatrics at the Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis, where he blogs about medical education.

More Musings
Rob Lamberts, MD, ACP Member, a med-peds and general practice internist, returns with "volume 2" of his personal musings about medicine, life, armadillos and Sasquatch at More Musings (of a Distractible Kind).

Prescriptions
David M. Sack, MD, FACP, practices general gastroenterology at a small community hospital in Connecticut. His blog is a series of musings on medicine, medical care, the health care system and medical ethics, in no particular order.

Reflections of a Grady Doctor
Kimberly Manning, MD, FACP, reflects on the personal side of being a doctor in a community hospital in Atlanta.

The Blog of Paul Sufka
Paul Sufka, MD, ACP Member, is a board certified rheumatologist in St. Paul, Minn. He was a chief resident in internal medicine with the University of Minnesota and then completed his fellowship training in rheumatology in June 2011 at the University of Minnesota Department of Rheumatology. His interests include the use of technology in medicine.

Technology in (Medical) Education
Neil Mehta, MBBS, MS, FACP, is interested in use of technology in education, social media and networking, practice management and evidence-based medicine tools, personal information and knowledge management.

Peter A. Lipson, MD
Peter A. Lipson, MD, ACP Member, is a practicing internist and teaching physician in Southeast Michigan. The blog, which has been around in various forms since 2007, offers musings on the intersection of science, medicine, and culture.

Why is American Health Care So Expensive?
Janice Boughton, MD, FACP, practiced internal medicine for 20 years before adopting a career in hospital and primary care medicine as a locum tenens physician. She lives in Idaho when not traveling.

World's Best Site
Daniel Ginsberg, MD, FACP, is an internal medicine physician who has avidly applied computers to medicine since 1986, when he first wrote medically oriented computer programs. He is in practice in Tacoma, Washington.

Other blogs of note:

American Journal of Medicine
Also known as the Green Journal, the American Journal of Medicine publishes original clinical articles of interest to physicians in internal medicine and its subspecialities, both in academia and community-based practice.

Clinical Correlations
A collaborative medical blog started by Neil Shapiro, MD, ACP Member, associate program director at New York University Medical Center's internal medicine residency program. Faculty, residents and students contribute case studies, mystery quizzes, news, commentary and more.

Interact MD
Michael Benjamin, MD, ACP member, doesn't accept industry money so he can create an independent, clinician-reviewed space on the Internet for physicians to report and comment on the medical news of the day.

PLoS Blog
The Public Library of Science's open access materials include a blog.

White Coat Rants
One of the most popular anonymous blogs written by an emergency room physician.

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