Blog | Friday, October 2, 2015

What can infection control learn from aviation safety?

We all like to believe that we work in a safe health care environment, one that is safe for our patients and colleagues. But the truth is, we care more about our own feelings and time than we do about patient and healthcare worker safety.

We've discussed the white coat “debate” and the contact precaution “debate” many times already on this blog and elsewhere. If you want to see a nice overview of the white coat debate, Phil Lederer has a new post up on The Conversation. Thus, I don't want to get into the specifics too much, but as a reminder, clinicians wear white coats to carry things, stay warm and as part of our professional uniform. As far as contact precautions, we wear them to significantly (clinical and statistical significance) reduce methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) infections with the majority of evidence suggesting contact precautions prevent transmission of clinically significant pathogens in inpatient settings.

The major barrier is that healthcare workers hate contact precautions (time, inconvenience) and cling to their white coats and no matter how much evidence we provide them through randomized, controlled trials (RCTs), cluster-RCTs and molecular epi studies, they will selectively interpret the data within their own subjective reality (i.e. cognitive bias). So when our patient safety leaders/deciders are immune from scientific data (i.e. the BUGG study or the hundreds of studies that show white coats are covered in pathogens), what are we to do? How can we possibly overcome their cognitive bias (which they hide behind by demanding more and more cluster-RCTs)?

The first thing we can do is point them to the patient safety movement's favorite target: aviation safety. In aviation safety, do they require cluster randomized trials before making us put our tray tables up during takeoff or before banning us from sleeping in the aisles? Is there an RCT that proves that only folks 13 years old and older can sit in an exit row? The answer is no. Airline safety is built on logic and scientific evidence, but not randomized trials. For example, you could test to see at what age children can open and lift an exit door safely and use that as a cut-off for setting age restrictions in exit rows. Amazing, huh? The equivalent in patient safety would be the dozens of studies showing that white coats are coated with pathogens and that long sleeves touch patients. With that level of evidence, an airline safety person would ban white coats in 30 seconds. They wouldn't care if it's inconvenient to carry your iPad without a white coat, just like they don't care that it's inconvenient to put your 5-pound laptop away before landing. Common sense prevails in airline safety! It should also prevail in infection control.

So how do we ultimately create a safe healthcare environment? First, we should continue to demand the highest level of evidence and funding for trials that help develop and test new patient-safety interventions. But in the meantime, we need to put our patients first by using the proven tools (contact precautions) and scientifically sound policies (bare below the elbows) that we already have at our disposal. The highly resistant bacterial pathogens aren't going to sit around waiting for a $20 million dollar cluster randomized trial proving white coats harm patients. And even if they did, there would be folks who would find reasons not to listen anyway; it's cold! Just like aviation safety experts do, we should use the best data available and common sense to make for the safest hospitals today and we should also acknowledge how our cognitive biases cloud our decision making.

To have a truly safe health care system, we need to put our patients' safety first and not hide behind a lack of cluster-RCTs that may never be done. If we follow the logic of folks clinging to their white coats or contact precaution deniers, we will soon not even have to wash our hands between patients. Wait, we already don't wash our hands you say? Yes, my point exactly.

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). This post originally appeared at the blog Controversies in Hospital Infection Prevention.