Procedure checklists work only if they are used

Complicated medical procedures can be dangerous, even when done by highly skilled and experienced people. Why? Because, irrespective of the procedural risk itself, all of us are human and we can overlook or forget things, no matter how many times we have done the procedure. This was recognized many years ago in the airline industry. Flying an airplane is a complicated and potentially dangerous activity and their are many steps to go through and check before takeoff. This is why, as you board an commercial airplane, you see the pilot and copilot going through a standardized list of things even though the pilot may have thirty years experience. Missing something can be fatal.

This process of formal checklists entered medical practice some years ago, first in the specialty of anesthesiology. It is one of the main reasons, along with new monitoring devices, that anesthesia is much, much safer than it was several decades ago. This approach then spread to other areas of medicine, in large part because of the work of patient safety guru Peter Pronovost.

The idea is simple: For every procedure, rather than just tick things off in our mind like I was trained to do, we should go through a formal checklist process to make sure everything is correct and in place. Many of these are pretty simple things. Do we have the right patient? Are we doing the correct procedure on the correct body part? Do we have all the stuff we need ready to go for the procedure? This may sound sort of obvious, even silly, but there are many sad examples of physicians doing the wrong operation on the wrong patient.

The checklist concept really took off with Atul Gawande’s widely read book (it was a New York Times bestseller) The Checklist Manifesto: How To Get Things Right. The groundswell to establish checklists before and during procedures has now reached most hospitals. I know in my practice things have changed. In the past when I needed to do a procedure on a patient I just gathered up the personnel and equipment I needed and got started. Now we go through a checklist. An important part of the process is that any member of the team who has questions or issues is encouraged — mandated, really — to raise them. Now that I’m used to it, I like the new way better than the old one.

But the big question, of course, is if this increased role of formal checklists before procedures has done anything. Are rates of, say, wrong patient, wrong site, or other bad things improved? There are data showing that complications from at least one procedure, placement of central venous catheters, are reduced by checklists. But what else to we know? A recent article and accompanying editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine examined this question. The upshot is that things are murky.

The research study is from Canada. It looked at 3,733 consecutive patients at 8 hospitals that had implemented checklists for operative procedures. The bottom line was that there was no improvement in measurable outcomes. But hold on, observed the author of the editorial. As he saw it, the problem was that the checklists were foisted upon the operating room personnel without any preparation. There was apparently some resistance at the novelty of them, accompanied by gaming of the system: “dry-labbing the experiment,” as we used to say in the laboratory. The author’s point is that we really don’t know if the demonstrable success of checklists in some aspects of patient care can be generalized to other things. We hope so, but we don’t know for sure.

The editorial author’s explanation for the findings of the research study is simple: “The likely reason for the failure of the surgical checklist in Ontario is that it was not actually used.”

Indeed.

Christopher Johnson is a pediatric intensive care physician and author of Keeping Your Kids Out of the Emergency Room: A Guide to Childhood Injuries and IllnessesYour Critically Ill Child: Life and Death Choices Parents Must FaceHow to Talk to Your Child’s Doctor: A Handbook for Parents, and How Your Child Heals: An Inside Look At Common Childhood Ailments.  He blogs at his self-titled site, Christopher Johnson, MD.

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  • Thomas D Guastavino

    In the mid 1990s we voluntarily took it upon ourselves to develop a checklist protocol to prevent wrong site surgeries, identify patients properly, and ensure that patients received items like pre-operative antibiotics in a timely manner. We had no problems until years later when we had an outside review. The response was ” You have an excellent protocol, but you still have to do it our way”
    The problem is not the mere existence of of a checklist. The problem is the arrogant belief that an outside entity applying some cookbook solution knows better then what an institution has found works best for them. I am not at all surprised that there were “no improvements in measurable results” following the cookbook.

  • Gaspere (Gus) Geraci

    We are trained as independent thinkers, and now society says we must follow the crowd’s recommendations. Dr. Guastavino describes this perfectly. Somewhere between, “I will do it my way,” and, “Do it the way we tell you,” is a right answer. We need to work together to find it.

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