Insights from Aviation Offered for Health Care Safety

Published May 31, 2016

Estimates by the National Institutes of Health have found nearly 100,000 people die in doctors’ offices and hospitals each year due to medical errors. And many of these errors are avoidable, says Stephen Harden, president of LifeWings Partners LLC, a company that works with doctors, hospitals, and clinics to increase patient safety.

Harden, who is a commercial pilot, compares health service delivery to commercial aviation in his new book, Never Go To the Hospital Alone (BPS Books).

“There is great similarity between health care and aviation. Both are populated with highly educated, highly trained professionals, and both require teamwork to accomplish their mission,” Harden said. “For health service providers the mission is to provide care, for commercial flights it is to get safely from here to there.”

Harden notes that in both cases, several individuals working together must coordinate their actions.

“It’s not just the doctor but the nurses, anesthesiologists, and others. So both require a group of experts to accomplish their mission,” Harden said. “And if we make a mistake, people are going to be injured or die. Unfortunately, our chances of dying due to a mistake in a hospital are far too high.”


Teambuilding, Standardization

Harden stresses developing standardized processes that diminish the potential for error.

“One of the primary things that must be addressed [is] how we take our experts and turn them into an expert team,” Harden said. “Another is the value of standard operating procedures and safety tools like checklists, communications scripting, and standard operating procedures.”

Harden compares the experience of surgeons to copilots who have been flying for years but still need to prepare an airplane for takeoff through a standardized process to avoid errors.

“Forgetting to set something correctly would have tragic and fatal consequences, so those sorts of things cannot be left to memory or chance. How you set the flaps must be standardized and crosschecked,” Harden said. “It’s the same thing in surgery. You may have a doctor who has practiced for 30 years, but just about every time they are going to have a different team, in perhaps a different operating room. It should be just as mandatory to use a checklist as scrubbing in.”

Sarah McIntosh, esq. ([email protected]) is a constitutional scholar writing from Lawrence, Kansas.

Internet Resources:

Stephen Harden, “Never Go to the Hospital Alone”: