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Teamwork Improves Surgical Safety and Reduces Mortality

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Like the cockpit, the operating room (OR) is fraught with high intensity, high complexity, high velocity, and high stakes. And as a capital intense location which serves as the financial engine of many or not most hospitals, there is pressure to use the OR efficiently. Like the cockpit, there is hierarchy, and a deep culture which includes strongly held rituals and customs. Unfortunately, there are also errors of omission and commission which lead to adverse outcomes including patient mortality. Airlines have proven that teamwork in the cockpit improves safety substantially to the extent that commercial airlines demand and licensing now requires evidence of team competency. Some hospitals have used the airline team training model – called crew resource management – to improve teamwork in the OR. The Veterans Health Administration (VHA) has 130 hospitals providing surgery and in 2006 mandated team training nationwide. Since it took time to arrange the training for each hospital, a study was instituted to compare surgical mortality between those hospitals which had already undergone training and those which had yet to do so (Journal of the American Medical Association, Oct 20, 2010 – both the article and accompanying editorial.) The mandatory team training included working as a team, challenging each other as to perceived risks or safety lapses, checklist guidance, and preoperative briefing and post operative debriefing. Team members were also taught various communication strategies, how to step back and reassess, how to communicate during care transitions and basic rules of conduct. The major measure was surgical mortality which was reduced by 18% in the 74 hospitals that had received the training compared to a 7% reduction in the 34 hospitals yet untrained (the controls.) The risk-adjusted mortality rates dropped from 17 per 1000 patients before training to 14 after training. The study demonstrated the value of team training in reducing mortality. I would add that, although not studied, it is likely that errors were reduced overall. Surgical teams are often excellent at responding to problems including those resultant from human error. Reducing mortality was obviously important, indeed very important, but reducing preventable errors overall – as I will presume occurred – will have meant a better outcome for many patients. The concept of team training is relevant not just in the OR but in many hospital settings such as bedside patient care rounds and with procedures done in the cardiac As I have written about before, the more team training is fostered, and indeed mandated, the lower will be the rate of preventable errors.   Stephen Schimpff, MD is retired CEO of the University of Maryland Medicine Center, a professor of medicine and public policy and author of “The Future of Medicine – Megatrends in Healthcare.” Submitted April 12, 2011

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