Monday, August 23, 2010

Air, space, and primary care checklists

There is a mesmerizing - some would say hypnotic - air traffic control display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC that shows the flight paths of every airplane over the United States during a 24-hour period in 2006. At any given moment, up to 6,000 planes were in the air, and the total number of flights numbered in the many tens of thousands. Immediately after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, air traffic controllers were instructed to land every one of them at once. And miraculously, they were able to do so without a single runway collision or plane running out of fuel.

After reading Harvard surgeon Atul Gawande's bestselling book The Checklist Manifesto several months ago, I learned that a feat that seemed miraculous to an outsider really wasn't. Since the early days of aviation, when planes became too complex for even the most experienced pilots to control without making an occasional devastating error of judgment or omission, pilots have depended upon checklists to manage both routine tasks and once-in-a-lifetime emergencies, such as last year's "Miracle on the Hudson" landing of a crippled US Airways jet in the Hudson River in which every passenger was rescued. Gawande's book goes on to describe how checklists have revolutionized industries as far apart as skyscraper construction and his own studies of safety in surgery.

Since reading Gawande's book, I've thought about how checklists might be applied to improve the performance and efficiency of primary care. On one hand, we already have many checklist-type procedures in family medicine: obtaining vital signs (which can include smoking status and body mass index in addition to height, weight, temperature, and blood pressure), paper or electronic applications that help family physicians to remember recommended immunizations, screening tests, checklists for diabetes care, and so forth. And through trial and error while developing the patient-centered medical home, we've found that regular practice meetings called "huddles" can serve much the same purpose as a surgical team organizing itself for a major operation.

On the other hand, primary care is, by nature, inherently less predictable than surgery or construction or piloting a commercial airliner. Beyond patients scheduled for health maintenance visits or chronic care checkups, we are trained to expect the unexpected, never knowing who is going to walk into the door on any given day with a limp, fracture, shortness of breath, chest pain, or other undifferentiated symptom, each with its own particular diagnostic approach. How can we possibly design a checklist for these? Does it even make sense to do so? I'd love to hear your ideas.