Four years ago Atul Gawande wrote an astounding article on the "stupid little checklist" and its impact on health care.
It was a great article, and of course it's been largely forgotten since. Progress is slow. It's hard to keep something so simple and obvious in the public mind; there's no business model.
I remembered this article after a recent experience in my own world of corporate software development. For want of a checklist a release was lost.
Annals of Medicine: The Checklist - The New Yorker 2007 by Atul Gawande
... For every drowned and pulseless child rescued by intensive care, there are many more who don't make it-and not just because their bodies are too far gone. Machines break down; a team can't get moving fast enough; a simple step is forgotten. Such cases don't get written up in The Annals of Thoracic Surgery, but they are the norm. Intensive-care medicine has become the art of managing extreme complexity-and a test of whether such complexity can, in fact, be humanly mastered.
... Fifty years ago, I.C.U.s barely existed. Today, in my hospital, a hundred and fifty-five of our almost seven hundred patients are, as I write this, in intensive care. The average stay of an I.C.U. patient is four days, and the survival rate is eighty-six per cent.
... A decade ago, Israeli scientists published a study in which engineers observed patient care in I.C.U.s for twenty-four-hour stretches. They found that the average patient required a hundred and seventy-eight individual actions per day, ranging from administering a drug to suctioning the lungs, and every one of them posed risks. Remarkably, the nurses and doctors were observed to make an error in just one per cent of these actions-but that still amounted to an average of two errors a day with every patient. Intensive care succeeds only when we hold the odds of doing harm low enough for the odds of doing good to prevail...
... intensive-care medicine has grown so far beyond ordinary complexity that avoiding daily mistakes is proving impossible even for our super-specialists. The I.C.U., with its spectacular successes and frequent failures, therefore poses a distinctive challenge: what do you do when expertise is not enough?
On October 30, 1935, at Wright Air Field in Dayton, Ohio, the U.S. Army Air Corps held a flight competition for airplane manufacturers vying to build its next-generation long-range bomber.
...The plane roared down the tarmac, lifted off smoothly, and climbed sharply to three hundred feet. Then it stalled, turned on one wing, and crashed in a fiery explosion. Two of the five crew members died, including the pilot, Major Ployer P. Hill.
An investigation revealed that nothing mechanical had gone wrong. The crash had been due to "pilot error," the report said. Substantially more complex than previous aircraft, the new plane required the pilot to attend to the four engines, a retractable landing gear, new wing flaps, electric trim tabs that needed adjustment to maintain control at different airspeeds, and constant-speed propellers whose pitch had to be regulated with hydraulic controls, among other features. While doing all this, Hill had forgotten to release a new locking mechanism on the elevator and rudder controls. The Boeing model was deemed, as a newspaper put it, "too much airplane for one man to fly." The Army Air Corps declared Douglas's smaller design the winner. Boeing nearly went bankrupt.
Still, the Army purchased a few aircraft from Boeing as test planes, and some insiders remained convinced that the aircraft was flyable. So a group of test pilots got together and considered what to do.
They could have required Model 299 pilots to undergo more training. But it was hard to imagine having more experience and expertise than Major Hill, who had been the U.S. Army Air Corps' chief of flight testing. Instead, they came up with an ingeniously simple approach: they created a pilot's checklist, with step-by-step checks for takeoff, flight, landing, and taxiing. Its mere existence indicated how far aeronautics had advanced. In the early years of flight, getting an aircraft into the air might have been nerve-racking, but it was hardly complex. Using a checklist for takeoff would no more have occurred to a pilot than to a driver backing a car out of the garage. But this new plane was too complicated to be left to the memory of any pilot, however expert.
With the checklist in hand, the pilots went on to fly the Model 299 a total of 1.8 million miles without one accident. The Army ultimately ordered almost thirteen thousand of the aircraft, which it dubbed the B-17. And, because flying the behemoth was now possible, the Army gained a decisive air advantage in the Second World War which enabled its devastating bombing campaign across Nazi Germany.
Medicine today has entered its B-17 phase. Substantial parts of what hospitals do-most notably, intensive care-are now too complex for clinicians to carry them out reliably from memory alone. I.C.U. life support has become too much medicine for one person to fly.
Yet it's far from obvious that something as simple as a checklist could be of much help in medical care. Sick people are phenomenally more various than airplanes. A study of forty-one thousand trauma patients-just trauma patients-found that they had 1,224 different injury-related diagnoses in 32,261 unique combinations for teams to attend to. That's like having 32,261 kinds of airplane to land. Mapping out the proper steps for each is not possible, and physicians have been skeptical that a piece of paper with a bunch of little boxes would improve matters much.
In 2001, though, a critical-care specialist at Johns Hopkins Hospital named Peter Pronovost decided to give it a try. He didn't attempt to make the checklist cover everything; he designed it to tackle just one problem.. line infections. On a sheet of plain paper, he plotted out the steps to take in order to avoid infections when putting a line in. Doctors are supposed to (1) wash their hands with soap, (2) clean the patient's skin with chlorhexidine antiseptic .
. Pronovost asked the nurses in his I.C.U. to observe the doctors for a month as they put lines into patients, and record how often they completed each step. In more than a third of patients, they skipped at least one.
The next month, he and his team persuaded the hospital administration to authorize nurses to stop doctors if they saw them skipping a step on the checklist; nurses were also to ask them each day whether any lines ought to be removed, so as not to leave them in longer than necessary.
Pronovost and his colleagues monitored what happened for a year afterward. The results were so dramatic that they weren't sure whether to believe them: the ten-day line-infection rate went from eleven per cent to zero. So they followed patients for fifteen more months. Only two line infections occurred during the entire period. They calculated that, in this one hospital, the checklist had prevented forty-three infections and eight deaths, and saved two million dollars in costs.
Pronovost recruited some more colleagues, and they made some more checklists. The researchers found that simply having the doctors and nurses in the I.C.U. make their own checklists for what they thought should be done each day improved the consistency of care to the point that, within a few weeks, the average length of patient stay in intensive care dropped by half.
The checklists provided two main benefits, Pronovost observed. First, they helped with memory recall, especially with mundane matters that are easily overlooked in patients undergoing more drastic events. (When you're worrying about what treatment to give a woman who won't stop seizing, it's hard to remember to make sure that the head of her bed is in the right position.) A second effect was to make explicit the minimum, expected steps in complex processes. Pronovost was surprised to discover how often even experienced personnel failed to grasp the importance of certain precautions. In a survey of I.C.U. staff taken before introducing the ventilator checklists, he found that half hadn't realized that there was evidence strongly supporting giving ventilated patients antacid medication. Checklists established a higher standard of baseline performance. ..
... 2003, however, the Michigan Health and Hospital Association asked Pronovost to try out three of his checklists in Michigan's I.C.U.s. It would be a huge undertaking. Not only would he have to get the state's hospitals to use the checklists; he would also have to measure whether doing so made a genuine difference.
This past summer, I visited Sinai-Grace Hospital, in inner-city Detroit, and saw what Pronovost was up against ... between 2000 and 2003 Sinai-Grace and eight other Detroit hospitals were forced to cut a third of their staff, and the state had to come forward with a fifty-million-dollar bailout to avert their bankruptcy.
... they were, I discovered, filling out those pages. Mostly, it was the nurses who kept things in order. Each morning, a senior nurse walked through the unit, clipboard in hand, making sure that every patient on a ventilator had the bed propped at the right angle, and had been given the right medicines and the right tests. Whenever doctors put in a central line, a nurse made sure that the central-line checklist had been filled out and placed in the patient's chart. Looking back through their files, I found that they had been doing this faithfully for more than three years.
Pronovost had been canny when he started. In his first conversations with hospital administrators, he didn't order them to use the checklists. Instead, he asked them simply to gather data on their own infection rates. In early 2004, they found, the infection rates for I.C.U. patients in Michigan hospitals were higher than the national average, and in some hospitals dramatically so. Sinai-Grace experienced more line infections than seventy-five per cent of American hospitals. Meanwhile, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan agreed to give hospitals small bonus payments for participating in Pronovost's program. A checklist suddenly seemed an easy and logical thing to try.
In what became known as the Keystone Initiative, each hospital assigned a project manager to roll out the checklists and participate in a twice-monthly conference call with Pronovost for trouble-shooting. Pronovost also insisted that each participating hospital assign to each unit a senior hospital executive, who would visit the unit at least once a month, hear people's complaints, and help them solve problems.
The executives were reluctant. They normally lived in meetings worrying about strategy and budgets. They weren't used to venturing into patient territory and didn't feel that they belonged there. In some places, they encountered hostility. But their involvement proved crucial. In the first month, according to Christine Goeschel, at the time the Keystone Initiative's director, the executives discovered that the chlorhexidine soap, shown to reduce line infections, was available in fewer than a third of the I.C.U.s. This was a problem only an executive could solve. Within weeks, every I.C.U. in Michigan had a supply of the soap. Teams also complained to the hospital officials that the checklist required that patients be fully covered with a sterile drape when lines were being put in, but full-size barrier drapes were often unavailable. So the officials made sure that the drapes were stocked. Then they persuaded Arrow International, one of the largest manufacturers of central lines, to produce a new central-line kit that had both the drape and chlorhexidine in it.
In December, 2006, the Keystone Initiative published its findings in a landmark article in The New England Journal of Medicine. Within the first three months of the project, the infection rate in Michigan's I.C.U.s decreased by sixty-six per cent. The typical I.C.U.-including the ones at Sinai-Grace Hospital-cut its quarterly infection rate to zero. Michigan's infection rates fell so low that its average I.C.U. outperformed ninety per cent of I.C.U.s nationwide. In the Keystone Initiative's first eighteen months, the hospitals saved an estimated hundred and seventy-five million dollars in costs and more than fifteen hundred lives. The successes have been sustained for almost four years-all because of a stupid little checklist.