A Pilot’s Thoughts On Patient Safety – HIMSS Closing Remarks by Capt. “Sully” Sullenberger

A Pilot’s Thoughts On Patient Safety – HIMSS Closing Remarks by Capt. “Sully” SullenbergerClosing keynotes at conferences are a mixed bag.  They’re typically heavy on the rah-rah inspiration and light on the actionable content that’s relevant to why the audience attended.

Still it was hard not to be excited to hear Capt. Chesley Bernett “Sully” Sullenberger III present the final remarks at HIMSS last week.  Capt. Sullenberger was the face of the “Miracle on the Hudson” event in January last year. The Airbus A320 he was piloting struck a flock of birds, lost two engines and he and his crew successfully landed the aircraft in the Hudson river, saving all aboard.

From everything I’ve seen and read about Capt. Sully, he’s a very smart, articulate, accomplished individual.  And that’s just what I expected to see when he took the stage.

What I didn’t expect to hear was a finely crafted assessment of the state of patient safety in the U.S. healthcare system.

Specifically, Capt. Sully talked about the use of checklists in healthcare to reduce infections and surgical outcomes.  This isn’t a new idea of course.  It’s been getting increased attention including Atul Gawande’s book The Checklist Manifesto published in December.

Yet adoption of checklists by the medical establishment continues to be low.  Doctors feel the checklists somehow demeans their capabilities or removes their latitude in creative problem solving.

Gawande’s fundamental argument is that checklists are a simple solution and they work astoundingly well.  Capt. Sully adds the human element to that argument by explaining why they work and, more importantly, that checklists empower physicians rather than holding them back.

By way of example, Capt. Sully, who has a long record of working on airline safety issues, explains that in a crisis, the pilot will routinely allow the co-pilot to fly the plane.  Freed of these burdens, the pilot has the freedom to develop a strategy for how to proceed.

Pilots cannot believe checklists aren’t standard practice in medicine – “you can’t do anything that complicated without a checklist.”  No one is infallible. However, by using checklists, you can at least be sure that your crises happen over the hard things, and not the easy things.

Checklists need to be combined with a few other fundamental shifts in the way healthcare teams work.  First, the entire care team needs to work together in an atmosphere of professional respect.  Anyone involved in the care of the patient should be able to raise a red flag and force the entire team to stop and take a look at what’s going on with the patient.

Finally, eliminating errors comes from examining the system and finding process solutions to prevent future errors.  Healthcare today uses an individually punitive system.  When something goes wrong, the energy is invested in finding individual fault and then punishing that individual.  The result is that the people involved try to hide errors or impede their investigation.  The airline industry wasn’t able to eliminate errors to the extent that it has until this aspect of the system changed.

It was easily the best closing remarks I’ve heard at a conference, and yet, we were really the wrong audience to hear it.  HIMSS is a great group of IT professionals representing all aspects of the field.  The people who needed to hear this presentation are the Chief Medical Officers and other physicians.  I certainly hope Capt. Sully’s speaking career continues strongly and that he gets the opportunity to present this topic to lots of docs in the future.

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Ben Dillon

About Ben Dillon

Ben’s a big picture type of guy. He loves sharing new ideas in digital marketing, keeping a watchful eye on healthcare industry trends and seeing how it all intersects. A sought-after speaker, writer, blogger and current SHSMD board member, Ben’s an influential voice in healthcare marketing, helping organizations across the country embrace online strategies to engage health consumers. Combine his industry savvy with his background in software development and you can see why he’s also an important member of Geonetric’s software team, ensuring our content management system stays a step ahead of market needs. Ben holds a master’s degree in eBusiness and strategic management from the University of Iowa and a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering from the University of Michigan. When he’s not traveling and evangelizing, Ben enjoys cooking with his family and playing the Big House with the University of Michigan Alumni marching band.

1 thought on “A Pilot’s Thoughts On Patient Safety – HIMSS Closing Remarks by Capt. “Sully” Sullenberger

  1. A doctor/relative sent me a copy of the New Yorker a few years ago that had a long article on the use of checklists in emergency and operating rooms. By doing so, the author wrote, there is a dramatic decline in deaths in those parts of a hospital where death is never too far away.

    Later on, I went into the operating room of a hospital I trust with a surgeon that I respected and trusted, as well, I have a hazy memory of doing some checking myself, as to whether they used checklists. As far as I remember the answer was a positive one and I “slept” well and recovered just fine.

    I am just now responding to a request for advice on using a home remodeling contractor. One part of my advice is to follow the rule of “Trust and Verify” which is another aspect of checklists. Trust all the skills and training the contracting crew might have, but verify their work along the way. Sullenberger showed everyone who would listen that this is key to brilliant piloting and safety.

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