The time has come to drive a stake through the heart of an oft-repeated assertion.

How often have you heard something like the following when those of us in healthcare who want to stimulate quality and safety improvements draw analogies to the airline industry?

“Well, in an airplane, the pilot has an extra incentive to be safe, because he will go down with the ship. In contrast, when a doctor hurts a patient, he gets to go home safe and sound.”

At a recent talk to medical residents, medical students, and nurses in training, Terry Fairbanks (Director of the National Center for Human Factors Engineering in Healthcare) put the opposing case forward.  He noted, “No pilot follows safety rules and procedures because he thinks he is otherwise going to crash.”

Likewise, I would note, no doctor fails to follow safety rules and procedures because s/he does not care about the well-being of a patient.

What is the difference, then?  Terry summarizes, “There is a pervasive safety culture and set of rules that guides airplane pilots, based on a human factors approach.”

He added, “The relative degree of accountability (compared to other industries) is not the underlying cause of medical errors.”

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