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What medicine can learn from aviation about error reporting

A physician anesthesiologist and medical contributor for Fox News Channel recently wrote an article on how the health-care field can reduce instances of preventable errors by learning from the aviation industry.

First, the anesthesiologist served up some grave statistics on medical errors in the United States — such as about seven wrong-site surgeries occur each day in the country and about 1.3 million Americans are injured each year because of medication errors.

She then explained that aviation and medicine are similar in that pilots and doctors both hold other people’s lives in their hands and a simple mistake can be deadly. But aviation is different from the medical field in that serious mistakes are often very high-profile. Seldom has there been an airplane crash that flew under the radar, like so many medical errors do.

For that reason, the aviation industry couldn’t afford not to do something about preventable mistakes, or no one would ever step foot on an airplane again. Of course, most people don’t have a choice about whether or not to receive medical care, which could be one of the reasons that the medical field has been reluctant to implement real change.

It can be done, the anesthesiologist wrote, if the error reporting system for the medical field was more like that of the aviation field. For example, the aviation industry blames environments or systems for preventable errors instead of individuals, which makes it much more likely that they will be reported and dealt with.

On the other hand, many hospitals don’t allow anonymous reporting of mistakes because they want to hold individuals accountable; however, this results in fewer mistakes being reported out of fear of backlash. All too often, mistakes that are part of a greater problem are swept under the operating table and continue to occur.

Ultimately, the anesthesiologist made the point that in order for preventable medical errors to stop, standards of care need to be changed — and in order for that to happen, mistakes need to be reported and understood.

Source:  Press of Atlantic City, “Medicine must address errors the way aviation does,” Nina Radcliff, Sept. 25, 2013