What Pilots Can Teach Doctors

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To help reduce medical mistakes that kill as many as 100,000 Americans a year, a new study says members of the medical profession could learn from the experience of airplane pilots.

CBS News Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Kaledin reports.


When it comes to treating the epidemic of medical errors in the United States, perhaps hospitals should look to the friendly skies.

That's the advice of psychologist Robert Helmreich who studies the way errors are handled in aviation and thinks doctors in the operating room could learn a lot from pilots in the cockpit.

"Aviation has very successfully addressed human error through training programs that focus on teamwork, communication, leadership, managing errors when they occur," says Helmreich.

The world of medicine is lagging far behind. Helmreich surveyed attitudes among medical staff and pilots about everything from teamwork to fatigue.

He found that 97 percent of all pilots were open to input from a junior staff member while only 55 percent of surgeons were interested in another opinion.

In addition, 26 percent of pilots denied that fatigue impaired their ability while 70 percent of surgeons denied the effect of fatigue.

The solution according to Helmreich is to teach hospital staff the skills airplane crews have been studying for 20 years.

When the 1978 crash of a United Airlines jet in Portland, Ore., was determined to be caused by the pilot's inability to handle stress, the aviation industry developed a training program called Crew Resource Management, which is now mandatory worldwide.

It emphasizes teamwork and communication and forces pilots to accept the reality that they are human.

That may be the biggest challenge for doctors.

Dr. Michael Leonard is hoping the lessons of aviation take off at St. Joseph's Hospital in Denver, but he knows that means cracking the culture of medicine in which egos loom large and mistakes are a sign of weakness.

"We have all been very clearly trained that we do not make mistakes so to admit that we make mistakes in essence questions our competence our integrity," says Leonard.

It's exactly the kind of pride pilots have learned to swallow, knowing that if they never admit mistakes they will never learn from them either.

  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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