Dec 6, 2010

Dealing with Culture Shock: The Aviation and Health Care Industries

One of my favorite things to do is travel. Traveling provides me with an unmatched exhilarating feeling of adventure. Whenever I casually walk down an unknown bustling street, my senses are overloaded with new sights and smells. This kind of excitement is unbelievably addicting. My mind just races with comments. What is that brilliant green dress she’s wearing made of? Can you really eat that? Whoa, where did all of those chickens come from? Did those kids just point and laugh at me? Is his cell phone really that tiny? Why is everyone so tall?

Do I ever experience culture shock? Sure. Every new environment will take some time to adjust to, but the challenges of getting around and living outside of my comfortable apartment in Michigan is all part of the fun of traveling.

What about the culture shock of transitioning from one industry of work into another? The University of Michigan IHI Open School Chapter’s Monthly Speaker Series guest, Gary Sculli, probably does not have many positive feelings associated with his move from the airline industry into health care. Gary Sculli is currently a Program Manager at the National Center for Patient Safety in Ann Arbor, MI. He has both extensive experience as an airline pilot and is a registered nurse.

As Sculli starkly contrasted the two industries, it was clear that the airline industry and health care were two very different beasts. While it may have been difficult for me to adjust to taking cold showers while I was in Ghana, “traumatic” would be the word I’d choose to describe a move into health care from the airline industry. Here are some differences at a quick glance.

AirlinesHealth Care
Team trainingHierarchical barriers
Human Factor awarenessHuman Factors NOT emphasized
StandardizationVarying degrees of standardization
Checklists disciplineExpectation to complete outside functions
Formalized recurrent trainingHaphazard recurrent training
FAA mandated performance checkingAbsence of mandatory performance checking

Not only are there differences in work environment between the two fields, but health care is associated with higher error rates—rates that make up the harrowing statistic of up to 98,000 deaths a year due to medical errors, published in the IOM Report, To Err is Human in 1999. A recent study evaluating quality improvement in health care’s progress since the publication of To Err is Human reports the sobering fact that not much has changed. Just as many people become victims of medical error today. While a lot of improvements have been made, we still have a long way to go. According to the Joint Commission, at the root of many of the errors we see in health care are communication and organizational culture. So, what health care needs is a cultural transformation. With the likes of Gary Sculli, we are well on our way on the journey towards safer health care.

Being flexible and keeping an open mind are two important items to pack when traveling to ensure a positive experience. Gary Sculli surely did not forget to pack these on his move. He took the lemons he found in health care and made lemonade by applying effective communication and leadership strategies practiced in the airline industry to health care in order to make health care more effective and reliable. In his discussion, Sculli outlined the concept of crew resource management as a team building effort to not just strive towards eliminating error, but more importantly, how to manage error when it does occur. He also discussed different leadership styles, being a dictator or facilitator, and the health care consequences associated with each. What else is needed to make health care more reliable? Sculli illustrated the need to redesign health care to support “situational awareness,” being able to perceive, comprehend, project, make decisions, and perform actions on variation in one’s environment. Check out the University of Michigan IHI Open School website for more information on topics discussed at the Monthly Speaker Series event.

The application of many of these airline tools have been able to make some great changes in health care. With the use of checklists, many hospitals have been able to effectively standardize procedures and eliminate hospital acquired infections. Through communication training among the staff of the operating room, physicians have been shown to be more adept at soliciting feedback and taking appropriate actions, while nurses and other members of the OR team have moved away from the “hinting and hoping” strategy of declaring an error to providing feedback in a direct, concise, and specific manner.

Perhaps what I love most about traveling is that once you move past the initial jolt of shock that the differences of a new location can give you, people are really all the same. I’ve learned so much from the cultures and people I have interacted with on my travels and have adopted some of these practices into my daily life. Personally, these adopted practices have made my life better. Is health care really so different from the airline industry? They are both fields that include teams of individuals performing highly specialized skills with extreme risk and small margins of acceptable error. With the help of inspiring leaders like Gary Sculli, health care is adopting the best practices from other industries. If we keep moving in this direction, I’m sure the next culture shock health care will give is one of success that we can all be proud of.