Counterheroism, common knowledge, and ergonomics: concepts from aviation that could improve patient safety

Milbank Q. 2011 Mar;89(1):4-38. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-0009.2011.00623.x.


Context: Many safety initiatives have been transferred successfully from commercial aviation to health care. This article develops a typology of aviation safety initiatives, applies this to health care, and proposes safety measures that might be adopted more widely. It then presents an economic framework for determining the likely costs and benefits of different patient safety initiatives.

Methods: This article describes fifteen examples of error countermeasures that are used in public transport aviation, many of which are not routinely used in health care at present. Examples are the sterile cockpit rule, flight envelope protection, the first-names-only rule, and incentivized no-fault reporting. It develops a conceptual schema that is then used to argue why analogous initiatives might be usefully applied to health care and why physicians may resist them. Each example is measured against a set of economic criteria adopted from the taxation literature.

Findings: The initiatives considered in the article fall into three themes: safety concepts that seek to downplay the role of heroic individuals and instead emphasize the importance of teams and whole organizations; concepts that seek to increase and apply group knowledge of safety information and values; and concepts that promote safety by design. The salient costs to be considered by organizations wishing to adopt these suggestions are the compliance costs to clinicians, the administration costs to the organization, and the costs of behavioral distortions.

Conclusions: This article concludes that there is a range of safety initiatives used in commercial aviation that could have a positive impact on patient safety, and that adopting such initiatives may alter the safety culture of health care teams. The desirability of implementing each initiative, however, depends on the projected costs and benefits, which must be assessed for each situation.

MeSH terms

  • Aviation*
  • Checklist
  • Costs and Cost Analysis
  • Ergonomics
  • Health Knowledge, Attitudes, Practice
  • Humans
  • Medical Errors / prevention & control*
  • Safety Management*