Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Healthcare not similar to aviation but lessons can still be learnt

Healthcare learning from other industries needs a much higher degree of sophistication

When are you in control and when are your patients in control?

When a plane is flying the passengers are not in control. It is the pilot who is in full control. The pilot also has controls on him/her but that control is not exercised by the passengers. Well, when there are 50 to 500 passengers in the cabin it will obviously be a problem to let individual passengers be in control of the flight itself. The passengers do get some control over their pre-made choices such as seats and meals; the passengers also get some control over when they use the toilets and when they can walk about as long as they are prepared to sit down and belt up as soon as they are instructed to do so. It is actually against the law to disregard pilot or cabin crews instructions; you do not have to harm yourself or others as a result, just not following the pilots orders is an offence.

Healthcare has made big noises about learning from aviation. We can argue that there are some similarities and some differences in the way passengers are treated and patients are treated. Just within the context of this short write up, can a chief exec of a small healthcare organisation or a chief clinician of a large unit say ‘we have a large number of patients to treat and hence we cannot accommodate individual patient choices’? Can clinicians tell patients ‘you have a choice over meals but for the rest of your healthcare you will do as you are told when you are in the hospital’? Will it ever become law that if patients’ disregarded their doctor’s instruction in a hospital they will be prosecuted (for potentially adversely affecting other patients care as a result)? Clinicians 'orders' are not orders at all. Of course it is an entirely different debate on whether the patients will get good results even if they followed their doctor's instructions completely.

The similarities between healthcare and aviation or any other industry for that matter are quite limited. This is for the simple basic reason that healthcare is direct and personal to the recipient – as direct and personal as a professional poking fingers and instruments into various orifices with consent in an attempt to make the lay patient better. That directness and ‘personalness’ does not happen in the often quoted ‘ultra-safe’ industries such as nuclear power plants, scheduled airlines, European railways and so on. It is a totally different empathetic human to human interaction where the 'relationship' is the main driver/lever. The synthetic 'have a nice day' with an artificial smile will not work in healthcare. Its a kind of relationship that a pilot or crew might have when the plane has crash landed and they are trying to rescue frightened and traumatised passengers; not something that they would wish to do everyday and that is something that many in healthcare do every day.

That does not mean healthcare cannot be safer than what it is now. It also does not mean that the ultra-safe industries have nothing to share with clinicians; of course we need to learn more from crew resource management methods, etc. It only means that the lessons and methods can only indirectly be applied; the principles have to be adapted and only then adopted. We are really poor in translating the lessons from other industries into healthcare.

I am very passionate about patient safety and quality enhancement. I have learned a lot from other industries including aviation. Healthcare is a risky business. If we attempt a direct application of the principles from other industries, healthcare will continue to remain a risky business. The translation and transfer has to be much more sophisticated than what it is right now. It is possible.


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