NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


November 1, 2006

What does an airplane crash have to do with patient safety?  A growing number of health care providers are trying to learn from aviation accidents and, more specifically, from what the airlines have done to prevent them, says the New York Times. 

  • In the last five years, several major hospitals have hired professional pilots to train their critical-care staff members on how to apply aviation safety principles to their work.
  • They learn standard cockpit procedures like communication protocols, checklists and crew briefings to improve patient care, if not save patients' lives. 
  • Though health care experts disagree on how to incorporate aviation-based safety measures, few argue about the parallels between the two industries or the value of borrowing the best practices.

Spurred by a 1999 report by the Institute of Medicine, an arm of the National Academies, titled "To Err Is Human," which estimated that as many as 98,000 patients die annually from preventable medical errors, and by more recent bad publicity from mistakes like amputations of the wrong limbs, many health care providers are redoubling their efforts to improve patient safety.

It is well established that, like airplane crashes, the majority of adverse events in health care are the result of human error, particularly failures in communication, leadership and decision-making.

According to Dr. Stephen B. Smith, chief medical officer at the Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha:

  • The culture in the operating room has always been the surgeon as the captain at the controls with a crew of anesthesiologists, nurses and techs hinting at problems and hoping they will be addressed.
  • The culture needs to change so that communication is more organized, regimented and collaborative, like what you find now in the cockpit of an airplane.

Source: Kate Murphy, "What Pilots Can Teach Hospitals About Patient Safety," New York Times, October 31, 2006.

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