A hero’s perspective
Sullenberger gives new context to well-worn patient-safety points
As serious as the topic of patient safety is, I can’t help but roll my eyes every time I hear a guest speaker at a healthcare conference or banquet say “it’s like a jumbo jet crashing every day for a year” when they’re putting into perspective how many people die annually from medical errors. I’m not sure who gets the credit for the overused analogy, but I’ve been hearing it for more than 10 years, ever since the Institute of Medicine released its famed To
Err is Human report in 1999. I heard the jet crash analogy again two weeks ago in Atlanta when I was covering the annual HIMSS conference and exhibition for Live@HIMSS, our daily electronic newsletter from the show. This time when I heard it, I didn’t roll my eyes. That’s because the words came out of the mouth of newly retired US Airways Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who gave the closing keynote address at the conference.
Sullenberger, of course, is credited with saving the lives of all 155 passengers and crew members when he landed his crippled airliner on New York’s Hudson River on Jan. 15, 2009. For Sullenberger, the analogy wasn’t a catchphrase but rather a potential outcome he lived with for 30 years as a commercial airline pilot if he didn’t do his job perfectly each and every time.
In his nearly hourlong presentation, Sullenberger preached about all the safety lessons learned in aviation that could be applied in the healthcare industry to reduce medical errors. What impressed me most was that his presentation was custom-written for the occasion. Sullenberger didn’t show up with a canned motivational speech. He cared enough to arrive in Atlanta with a well-crafted speech comparing and contrasting the safety issues, culture and strategies between two industries: aviation and healthcare.
I have no doubt that Sullenberger had some help in preparing the speech. It would be impossible for him to have firsthand knowledge of some of the anecdotes he cited from individual hospitals and physicians. But that’s beside the point. Sullenberger, with a little assistance, tailored his talk to the several thousand HIMSS attendees who stayed to the end of the four-day confab to hear him speak.
He simply could have retold the story of the landing on the river, and the crowd would have walked away happy. Rather, Sullenberger didn’t take their attendance for granted, and he spoke to them about their profession.
He worked in a number of healthcare information technology references, such as the use of “de-identified” safety data. He said the 1977 collision between two Boeing 747 jets at an airport in the Canary Islands that killed 583 people was “the airline industry’s IOM report” that launched the modern aviation-safety movement. And he thanked a New York hospital for sneaking him, his first officer and two flight attendants into the room of a third flight attendant who was injured in the crash landing and safeguarding their privacy.
Unlike airplane crashes, medical errors happen one at a time in individual hospital rooms and physician offices and, therefore, don’t receive the same amount of public attention, Sullenberger explained. “You need to start thinking of these medical mishaps not as inevitable but as unimaginable,” he said. “You could make the practice of medicine as safe as aviation has become.”
After his formal remarks, Sullenberger calmly fielded seven questions—and in some cases, long-winded statements—from members of the audience. One was from a sobbing woman who said a medical error led to the death of her mother. In front of thousands, a patient Sullenberger told her he was sorry for her loss. He later quipped, “I never did any public speaking before Jan. 15, and frankly I didn’t want to.”
Sullenberger is the real deal. He could be the patient-safety messiah everyone has been waiting for.