Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Scheduled airlines are safe, just like out patient clinics

There are constant comparisons between aviation and healthcare especially in terms of how safe aviation is.  There is no doubt that aviation in general has a low mortality rate for passengers. I have already written about the need to learn from how aviation achieved it, I have also pointed out to the limitations of the comparisons ( The term aviation or air transport in my view, includes many things, which starts from the booking process, airport formalities, baggage, catering, flying, etc. It also includes transportation of animals and goods.

In general, the whole of aviation is considered arguably to be better than healthcare. What is not arguable is that commercial scheduled airlines have a very low mortality rate for passengers. Here is my problem, death is not one of the eventual natural outcomes of transportation when transporting essentially healthy persons from one place to another; quite rightly in aviation is mortality is unacceptable. Hospitals on the other hand are not in the business of transporting passengers, people come in with illnesses and diseases many of which are really serious; mortality is one of the eventual outcomes of serious illness and disease. In other words healthcare routinely battles against death and sometimes death wins.

To compare error rates could be valid as error is often a measurable part of process failure but to compare the impact of those errors is probably a false comparison. In aviation all mortality is avoidable mortality, in healthcare it is not. So to put it in context the comparison if we must is between all mortality in aviation and avoidable mortality in healthcare (i.e. the result of process failure). That is what I mean by impact. The impact of errors that result 'morbidity' is of course hugely different like losing a bag vs losing a leg. Hence let us not compare impacts of errors such as mortality morbidity between aviation and healthcare which skews the public discourse. Let us look at error rates and see what we can learn.

Variation the enemy of quality

People talk about variation of care across hospitals and locations; it is true that there is wide variation and reducing the variation will improve outcomes.

Aviation which is often looked upon as a beacon of safety also has variation. Looking at 2004 accident rates for North American airlines Delta scored 0.30 and Value Jet/Air Tran scored 5.88 – well, you work out the how wide the variation is even in an ultra safe industry. If you start looking at international comparisons the variations are of course much worse. ( There is also a five times variation of fatalilties per million flight hours with scheduled airlines being lowest compared with general aviation.

When there is human to machine interaction as in aviation, there is such a large degree of variation. Healthcare is human to human interaction so it is hardly surprising that variation exists and could be expected to be more than other industries. Looks like variation in performance is not a problem exclusive to healthcare industry; variation is a human problem or to put it better, variation is a function of human performance.

That does not mean we must accept variation especially when it causes harm, we should work very hard to reduce it to ensure safe healthcare.

Fatalities in Aviation

The human fatality rate is very low indeed in the scheduled airlines part of the aviation industry. The air transport of animals, however has suffered bad press. Airlines are apparently not even required to report animal deaths. The mortality rate of animals in air transport is thought to be 0.2%.(

The post surgical 30 day mortality for day case surgery in humans which is about 0.01%. In-hospital mortality for day cases is probably as low as the scheduled commercial aviation segment.

CRM and Simulation are of course extremely valuable tools and has a lot to teach us in healthcare. The number of air accidents and the number of fatal air accidents have remarkably decreased over the past few decades. That is truly fantastic. What is interesting though, is that the pilot error rate has been at about 50% since the 1950s to the 2000s, percentage of accidents attributed to pilot errors has not shown a significant decrease. The proportions of various reasons for crashes have also remained more or less the same. This is in a way a tribute to the aviation industry, since the planes have become technologically very superior it would not be surprising if pilot/human error played a bigger part and it has not, that is creditable. However, I wonder if it would be valid to argue that if CRM and simulation were indeed really powerful should the pilot error rates be falling?

Survival rates of passengers in aircrafts involved in fatal accidents has not improved (and averages about 25% since the 1930s to 2000s) ( Military aircraft, fighter planes, aircraft engaged in warfare and private planes are thought to have much higher accident and fatality rate.

Some Aspects of Aviation are Safer than Others; Some Aspects of Healthcare are Safer than Others

I suppose in clinical healthcare delivery terms, scheduled airlines are possibly the equivalent of out patient care – not many patients die in out patient clinics. The risk to life is also very low for elective investigations, day case surgery and obviously the risk increases with emergencies and trauma.

In healthcare we talk about morbidity as well. Airlines perhaps should take into consideration DVTs, respiratory illnesses, musculo-skeletal problems and other health issues that happen after a flight. Non-health related morbidity for aviation perhaps include lost baggage, wrong meals............... no let me stop there before it gets silly. Hold on, why not, non-flying errors are also errors and results in 'airline industry morbidity' to passengers, perhaps not that silly.

What has to be said is in healthcare there is clearly much avoidable mortality - that is unacceptable. In healthcare the error rates in day to day activities are simply too high, that is again unacceptable. That is where learning meaningfully from other industries will help.

There is a fundamental problem with my writing here. I am not comparing like for like, I am comparing apples to pears. In my defense, I did not start that comparison. Comparing aviation to healthcare was not my original idea. There is a second problem with this manner of writing, it may sound like I am being defensive of healthcare and its practices, I am certainly not defending any poor healthcare practice or result. I acknowledge the superior results that aviation has had as a result of dedicated persistent efforts in the field of human transportation in scheduled airlines. I recognise the need for healthcare to learn from every source possible including commercial scheduled airlines. All I am saying is, let us stop comparisons and let us focus on learning. Let us look for clinical adaptations of these techniques rather than attempted direct transfer of airline techniques. Let us recognise the uniqueness and the intimacy of human to human interaction that healthcare involves.

A word of warning: This is not a 'hate aviation' piece of writing, this is not aviation versus healthcare writing. This is a plea to learn the lessons in a way that is appropriate to healthcare - clinicians and patients.

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Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Letter to my nieces

A letter to my nieces

Sam (USA)
– who has just joined med school this year


Mayank (India)
- who completes med school this year

Dear Sam and Mayank

Congratulations. Sam you have done well to get to med school. Mayank you have done great and will finish med school later this year. You are in the top 2% of the academic performers and you will continue to remain there at least till you begin independent clinical practice, hopefully many decades into your clinical practice.
I write this in joy but more relevantly to provide you another window for your intellect and for your practical development.

I did Anatomy, Physiology and Biochemistry in my first year at med school. There are not many more accurate and fact based subjects than these in medical education. Fact after fact, learnt day after day. We realised that these facts were the foundations of our future careers, we took it really seriously. We demonstrated our mastery (okay, personally I just demonstrated my mere competence) by passing tests and exams. It was tough. It was worth it. I was satisfied that my foundations were good.

These fact based subjects left an indelible impression in my mind that medicine and its practice was based on accuracy and facts. When the facts varied, such as when the cystic artery was double or it was low lying and so on, they were grouped into sub-facts to be remembered for future reference and practice. Some facts were actually a range of facts as in the normal range of plasma sodium values and so on. Later on while attending physiology classes at the Royal College of Surgeons at Edinburgh, the tutor would squeal in dominant delight ‘either you know it or you don’t’; no more powerful, explicit message for post-graduate doctors about the need to be precise and accurate. A message that I heard many years earlier in first year med school and repeatedly thereafter.

As we moved along we recognised that subjects like pathology and microbiology begin to interfere with subjects like anatomy and physiology and gives rise to trouble in real people. Help was at hand for us to understand that. Pathology text books showed clear microscopic slides on how every pathology looked, again where there were variations they were classified as yet another group of facts.  I got the impression at that time that if that’s how it looked, that is what it must be. That kind of thinking was compatible with the fact based approach of anatomy and physiology. All this knowledge was then put to practical use by learning even more glamorous and glorious subjects such as surgery, internal medicine, gynaecology, et al. Those were exciting days.

We continued to learn from revered text books on the one hand and from revered teachers on the other. Patients had clinical problems, we used our knowledge to diagnose them (CT scans were extremely rare when we were medical students and ultrasound scans were just taking off and x-rays in general provided basic support) and applied our knowledge to treat them. Of course things did not always go well for patients, we still call them complications or morbidity, sometimes patients died, we classify that as mortality.

As we gained experience often as post-graduate doctors we began to realise that all of our revered teachers did stuff very differently from each other while they were dealing with similar problems. The cleverer of the lot justified their different styles of practice by references to science, the rest told us that their experience suggested that their practises were valid. Our professors and consultants told us that they acquired their wealth of knowledge so that they can give their opinions. One sudden day we recognise that we learn medicine on the basis of knowledge and practise it on the basis of opinion. On the basis of very very widely varying opinion.

We begin to wonder. If the learning in undergraduate medicine was based on accurate facts, why is the practice of real world medicine on the basis of hugely varied opinion? We brush aside these discomforting thoughts. We have not only made a huge investment in our knowledge but also in our method of acquiring and practising that knowledge.

Pathology text books did not tell us that two pathologists looking at the same slide could give you two different opinions, not often but certainly possible in the definition of complex cases. We were never told that the text books that we read were by definition about five years out of date or that at worse some of the editors edited those books while travelling in their ultra-luxury cars between various locations of their private practices or at best after a couple premium alcoholic drinks in their study. We were realised that when our teachers said the words ‘in my experience’ it did not mean objectively measured operational experience but meant their personal subjective understanding of how they thought they performed.

In medical practice there is evidence for everything and there is evidence for nothing. This provoked David Eddy, the American father of evidence based practice (oh, by the way evidence based practice has two fathers one American and one British) I believe to say something like that you can find two physicians to testify in court to the exact opposite views.

Nobody will tell you yet that

Substantial activity in clinical medicine is not performed on the basis of clear unequivocal evidence
Substantial activity in clinical medicine cannot after care delivery find evidence to back it
Substantial clinical care is delivered incompletely
Substantial amount of errors are found in the delivery of care
Substantial numbers of clinicians are either unable or unwilling to accept the above

These issues are not just academic, they have great direct impact on patients and their lives. We did not know at med school that there was an entity called avoidable mortality; when we first heard about it we found it unbelievable for the reason that if it was avoidable us clever and experienced doctors would have already avoided it. We did not know at med school that practice of healthcare is highly error prone and extremely unsafe; when we came to know about it we did not believe it. Despite this we and the public, trust ourselves - the medical profession; we trust our high intelligence, our extreme hard work or proven record of success for ourselves and for our profession. We are brilliant and we have faith in ourselves.  The brilliance of the medical profession is also blinding itself.

The lack of evidence and the opinion based practice results in hierarchical power games. Those who are unable to play become bad apples initially and ‘poor performers’ later. Now, imagine that, top scores at school graduation, long mind numbing hours of hard work for years, proven success in exams and other challenges, then eventually being called incompetent or poor performer or some other derogatory term by people who practice the art of medicine while imagining it to be based on facts and evidence. Worse still these phenomena perpetuate the wide clinician generated variations in practice. Doctors are intelligent and learned enough to be able to justify their individual practices as evidence based; that is of course true. What is important to understand is that their justification is based on the evidence they choose to base it upon. My evidence is the truth and nothing but the truth but not the whole truth. Simply because firstly the whole truth probably is not already known, secondly the whole truth is too vast to know and thirdly in healthcare the whole truth often has a tendency to contradict itself.

I write this not in despair, not to distract you, but to give you hope. Because the solutions for embracing a world of wrongness and still do good to the maximum number of your patients are already out there. I want to briefly introduce you to that world and I want you to be aware of it. These are the shades that you wear when you are out in the bright sun, it will also make you look cool. It might make you comfortable in a world of contradictory evidence.

In conventional science based research oriented world there is probably nothing that is absolutely true; there is a current hypothesis which we attempt to validate or reject and the hypothesis stands till it is rejected. You will find that most hypothesis in medicine are rejected over a period of time, this gives rise to problems in clinical practise as the research that is good today becomes ‘false’ very soon. However, that is how research and science works. That is how it should work. However, in our routine clinical practice we do not work as researchers, we work as operational practitioners. My suggestion therefore is to look at operational methods for a good clinical practise and use to them to the best benefit for your patients. These derive from the shared baseline approaches devised by Brent James and his team at Utah.

At a basic level, a good shared baseline method looks like this

-         - You agree with your immediate and local colleagues on a protocol for most common problems that are seen in your clinical practise
-         - You track the outcomes over time of some of the process and outcome parameters of the protocol that you have agree
      - You amend your protocol based on the outcome tracking
-         - You show deep and genuine respect for everyone who works with you
-         - You share and learn operational clinical day-to-day practise first and primarily with/from your immediate and local colleagues before you do so with the rest of the world

Intermountain Healthcare does this, they probably discovered this method. IHI recommends it (I suggest you become members of IHI open school), people at Mayo, Virginia Mason, Jonkoping and a few others have their own versions of this. The method though, is not one of a pick and mix buffet, one has to do them all or get no benefits from them.

I suggest that you start exploring this kind of thinking in parallel with your conventional learning, not for fact based subjects but for the rest of them. We are all creatures of habit, attitude and cultures. It will be very difficult to change once certain mindsets are established. The energy and effort required to do it now in parallel is much less than to do it later. Your patients will get remarkably far better results and your systems (your patients, insurance, hospital, yourself) will spend far less on a like for like basis.

Many doctors will understandably be either uncomfortable or unwilling to accept or follow this kind of practice. They will deride it as cook-book medicine run by technical managers interfering in clinical work. Obviously the ignorant will be prone to say what they want, that will be a reason to work to remove the ignorance not to forget the observed truth, unlike conventional healthcare practices and religion with its believed truth, this method is really the observed and demonstrated truth. Of course if you decide to choose conventional scientific research as a career then these methods are not suitable for you but if your life is that of a normal operational clinician then these are entirely relevant. I do not expect you to understand the new method fully, it will be a reason to learn it in due course. Enough for now to be aware that there are plenty of problems and there are proven solutions – just a matter of putting them together at the right time.

The wrongness that exists in medicine will not go away, that can only be solved by scientific research and one day you may in your lifetime find that medicine is based purely on scientific evidence. Till that time, awareness of, learning and practising the shared baseline method will give you superior results despite the wrongness around you.

As you stand on the threshold of entering into a new world, I wish you every success and great happiness in the practise of your profession. There can of course be no greater professional joy for a doctor than to see more of their patients get better.

August 2012

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