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Aviators Help Physicians Sharpen Skills

What can surgeons learn from an astronaut that will help them improve their performance in the operating room? Mt. Carmel administrators say, quite a bit.

Mt. Carmel Health Care Systems has hired an organization peopled by highly skilled aviators to teach ways to reduce the risk of harming people.

Former astronaut Rhea Seddon says pilots have a vested interest in staying safe. She adds, aviation has learned to be a high reliability org as have nuclear power plants, aircraft carriers and others where dangers are high and the problems with losses significant."

Seddon says NASA was built on the aviation model, and she was part of the research done in the early 1980's on what is known as Crew Resource Management. CRM is based on teams working together using a system of checks, double-checks and balances so practiced that it becomes ingrained. Anyone who watches the movie Apollo 13 is seeing some of the best of CRM.

Seddon and LifeWings say training in teamwork and standardizing processes can help solve the problem of medical errors which threaten patient safety. Mt. Carmel Chief Medical Officer Dr. Jeff Burnich oversees quality issues. In his words, the writing's on the wall. We've seen some of our best skilled surgeons and professionals in the area of medicine make mistakes.

Burnich says many of the errors that harm patients happen as a result of failed communication. LifeWings teaches that error is inevitable wherever humans are involved. But it is possible to trap errors before they hurt anyone.

Burnich admits, physicians can be a tough crowd to approach with a quality improvement program. But Seddon's credentials are difficult to ignore. She left space service after 20 years and three shuttle missions. Seddon is now assistant chief medical officer at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville where the LifeWings program has been used for four years to train nearly 4,000 people. The training targets those who come in direct contact with patients. She says there is much that health care can gain from pilots' tricks of the trade.

Aviators at the end of a flight will say, what did we do well, what could we do better and what do we need to fix before the next flight, says Seddon. We teach them to do that in health care, so everything you do helps you improve what you do the next time."

LifeWings will work with about 400 people associated with the four operating rooms at Mt Carmel's four hospitals. The company will teach debriefing, pre-briefing or making sure everyone is on the same page before every procedure and check-lists to be certain everything is set up correctly before the procedure begins.

We do some checklists in medicine, says Burnich, in operating rooms and heart cath labs, but not to the same level of doing it as teams - and putting patient in center. We do a reasonably good job, but they're helping us do a better job.

Mt. Carmel is not alone in looking for ways to do a better job. Burnich says while Mt. Carmel competes financially with other health care systems in central Ohio, all of them share best practices in patient safety.

There's nothing proprietary about making it safer or better for patients to get care, says Burnich. On Friday, Mt. Carmel, the Ohio State University Medical Center, Childrens Hospital and Ohio Health will come together for a conference on communication and patient safety.