I first became aware of the importance of checklists while I was being trained as a Flight Engineer. I spent a lot of time studying them carefully as an aviation student. Checklists are used during normal, abnormal, and emergency situations and pilots go through practical exercises in flight simulators to use them correctly. Let's not mince words: aviation as we know it today would not be possible without checklists.
In a study entitled "Missed and Delayed Diagnoses in the Emergency Department: A Study of Closed Malpractice Claims From 4 Liability Insurers", researchers found that:
The leading breakdowns in the diagnostic process were failure to order an appropriate diagnostic test (58% of errors), failure to perform an adequate medical history or physical examination (42%), incorrect interpretation of a diagnostic test (37%), and failure to order an appropriate consultation (33%). The leading contributing factors to the missed diagnoses were cognitive factors (96%), patient-related factors (34%), lack of appropriate supervision (30%), inadequate handoffs (24%), and excessive workload (23%).
Checklists can serve as cognitive aid in helping clinicians do their job safely. While the idea of using checklists and standard operating procedures has been fully embraced and adopted by aviation professionals for more than 70 years, it is only now making inroads into the field of medicine particularly in high pressure environments like intensive care units. The use of checklists in medicine has already shown the potential to save patients live and reduce human errors. However, the main challenge remains the acceptance of checklists by clinicians concerned about "Cookbook Medicine".
Checklists are just cognitive aids and the presence of an experienced and competent professional will always make a big difference in critical situations. As Captain Sullenberger (the airline pilot who successfully ditched US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River in New York City, on January 15, 2009) said, "One way of looking at this might be that for 42 years, I've been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience: education and training. And on January 15 the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal."
On modern airplanes, Electronic Centralised Aircraft Monitor (ECAM) systems or Engine Indicating and Crew Alerting Systems (EICAS) monitor aircraft systems and engines and displays messages in case of failure, as well as recommended remedial actions in the form of checklists. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) accident report on US Airways Flight 1549 indicates that the First Officer "was able to promptly locate the [Engine Dual Failure checklist] procedure listed on the back cover of the [Quick Reference Handbook] QRH, turn to the appropriate page, and start executing the checklist."
In medicine, factors such as comorbidity can complicate the design of effective CDS. However, with the explosion of medical knowledge and evidence-based guidelines, CDS will become an essential tool in healthcare delivery. The design, development, implementation, and use of CDS is knowledge-intensive and require an effective collaborative knowledge management strategy. The challenge will be to integrate checklists into the different CDS modalities such as context-sensitive Infobuttons, order sets, alerts, reminders, data entry and visualization, and clinical workflows.
For example, the evaluation results (in the form of recommendations) of a CDS rule can be presented to the clinician as an electronic checklist. This in turn can be tied directly to quality measures in the era of Meaningful Use, Pay-For-Performance, and Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs). An interesting example would be a checklist that prompts clinicians to generate detailed discharge instructions to satisfy quality measures for patients with heart failure or acute myocardial infection.
There is an important Human Factors aspect to the design and use of cockpit checklists and flight-deck procedures. This has been the subject of advanced research at NASA Ames Research Center more than twenty years ago and the results have been widely disseminated and implemented in the aviation industry.
In an article entitled "The Checklist" published in the New Yorker, Atul Gawande wrote:
"But consider: there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of things doctors do that are at least as dangerous and prone to human failure as putting central lines into I.C.U. patients. It’s true of cardiac care, stroke treatment, H.I.V. treatment, and surgery of all kinds. It’s also true of diagnosis, whether one is trying to identify cancer or infection or a heart attack. All have steps that are worth putting on a checklist and testing in routine care. The question—still unanswered—is whether medical culture will embrace the opportunity."
Peter Pronovost, an intensivist at Johns Hopkins Hospital and pioneer in the use of checklist in medicine, implemented a checklist at 127 Michigan intensive care units (ICUs) to reduce catheter-related blood stream infections (CRBSI). The project was so successful that it is estimated that it could significantly reduce the 28,000 deaths and 3 billion dollars in costs caused by these hospital-acquired infections.
The HL7 Clinical Decision Support (CDS) workgroup is working on standards for the vMR (Virtual Medical Record), Infobuttons, and Order Sets. There is also an effort at the OMG to publish a Clinical Decision Support Services specification for service-oriented CDS capabilities. The Flight Operation Interests Group (FOIG) of the Air Transport Association (ATA) is developing a data model and XML Schema for flight deck procedures and checklists. Developing a shareable content model for checklists in medicine could be an interesting idea.