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The Crash of Air France 447: Lessons for Patient Safety

From the start of the patient safety movement, the field of commercial aviation has been our true north, and rightly so. God willing, 2011 will go down tomorrow as yet another year in which none of the 10 million trips flown by US commercial airlines ended in a fatal crash. In the galaxy of so-called “high reliability organizations,” none shines as brightly as aviation.

How do the airlines achieve this miraculous record? The answer: a mix of dazzling technology, highly trained personnel, widespread standardization, rigorous use of checklists, strict work-hours regulations, and well functioning systems designed to help the cockpit crew and the industry learn from errors and near misses.

In healthcare, we’ve made some progress in replicating these practices. Thousands of caregivers have been schooled in aviation-style crew resource management, learning to communicate more clearly in crises and tamp down overly steep hierarchies. Many have also gone through simulation training. The use of checklists is increasingly popular. Some hospitals have standardized their ORs and hospital rooms, and new technologies are beginning to catch some errors before they happen. While no one would claim that healthcare is even close to aviation in its approach to (or results in) safety, an optimist can envision a day when it might be.

The tragic story of Air France flight 447 teaches us that that even ultra-safe industries are still capable of breathtaking errors, and that the work of learning from mistakes and near misses is never done.

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