The power of checklists in medicine

As usually happens before a new semester begins, I am reading a lot of articles, looking for material to make my medical ethics classes more interesting.

One of the most fascinating articles I read this week was “The Checklist,” by Atul Gawande. Gawande is a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. He also teaches at the Medical School and School of Public Health at Harvard University.

The first thing to say about Gawande is that he is a good story-teller. He tells the story of a 3-year-old girl in Austria, rescued and successfully resuscitated after spending 30 minutes at the bottom of a frozen pond, and the story of Anthony DeFilippo, a middle aged limousine driver who nearly died of surgical complications. In among these stories, he weaves a fascinating discussion of research by Peter Pronovost about the power of checklists to reduce medical errors and improve patient outcomes.

On a sheet of plain paper, [Pronovost] 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, (3) put sterile drapes over the entire patient, (4) wear a sterile mask, hat, gown, and gloves, and (5) put a sterile dressing over the catheter site once the line is in. Check, check, check, check, check. These steps are no-brainers; they have been known and taught for years. So it seemed silly to make a checklist just for them. Still, 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. This was revolutionary. Nurses have always had their ways of nudging a doctor into doing the right thing, ranging from the gentle reminder (“Um, did you forget to put on your mask, doctor?”) to more forceful methods (I’ve had a nurse bodycheck me when she thought I hadn’t put enough drapes on a patient). But many nurses aren’t sure whether this is their place, or whether a given step is worth a confrontation. (Does it really matter whether a patient’s legs are draped for a line going into the chest?) The new rule made it clear: if doctors didn’t follow every step on the checklist, the nurses would have backup from the administration to intervene.

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. (Emphasis added.)

Gawande then tells the story of the Keystone Initiative, an effort by the state of Michigan to implement checklists in the state’s ICUs. The project was a phenomenal success:

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.

Despite the effectiveness of checklists, however, they have not entered widespread use. Pronovost argues that:

The fundamental problem with the quality of American medicine is that we’ve failed to view delivery of health care as a science. The tasks of medical science fall into three buckets. One is understanding disease biology. One is finding effective therapies. And one is insuring those therapies are delivered effectively. That third bucket has been almost totally ignored by research funders, government, and academia. It’s viewed as the art of medicine. That’s a mistake, a huge mistake. And from a taxpayer’s perspective it’s outrageous.

Read the whole thing. If you find it interesting, you might want to look at The Checklist Manifesto (Metropolitan Books, 2009), Gawande’s book-length expansion of the ideas in this article.

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About Ron Belgau

I am completing my PhD in philosophy, and have taught medical ethics, philosophy of the human person, ethics, and philosophy of religion.
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