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Airline industry technique helping prevent medical errors

Airline industry technique helping prevent medical errors

Estimated read time: 2-3 minutes

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Preventable medical errors are costing Americans their lives, and taxpayers billions of dollars. Now hospitals are turning to the airline industry for help.

What looks like an emergency at California Pacific Medical Center is only simulated. The patient is a computer-controlled mannequin.

"It has pulses. It breathes. It produces carbon dioxide. It can even make sounds, and has tears, and blinks, and the pupils dilate; so it's very, very real," explained Dr. Steve Lockhart.

This exercise has its roots in the cockpit. Thirty years ago, some high-profile plane crashes set the airline industry on edge.

"Why are we crashing airplanes that are mechanically sound? And what they found was that it was the human factor," said Dr. Jack Barker, pilot and cognitive psychologist.

In a Canary Islands crash, the pilot refused to listen to his co-pilot about the fog. The co-pilot was too intimidated to abort the takeoff. Two 747s collided, killing nearly 600 people.

Crashes like that caused the industry to change: The captain is not the almighty. Everyone has a stake.

"The flight attendants, the mechanics, anybody who touches the airplane could stop an error that could keep a catastrophic event from happening," Barker said.

Dr. Donald Moorman, a Harvard surgeon, said, "It boils down to trust communication, mutual responsibility, mutual cross-checking of performance, and all those things"

That includes the use of simulators to train the team for emergencies. "The nice thing about that is that it's very forgiving. You can make mistakes; it's not going to bend any metal or hurt any people," Baker said.

What's worked well for airlines may be the right medicine for health care: The surgeon is not the almighty. The entire team has a stake.

"The airline culture, it took almost 20, 30 years to change. I think health care is learning from them, and it's going to be a much shorter period of time," Moorman said.

It's not just patient safety that's improving. Patients are spending less time in the ICU, the ORs are more efficient, and there's less turnover among the staff.

It makes sense because people are a lot happier having input and feeling like their work is appreciated


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Dr. Kim Mulvihill


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