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Medical safety, lessons from the airline industry

Anyone who has ever traveled by air will be familiar with all the safety measures mandated by the airline industry. What gets demonstrated by the crew as safety procedures while aboard is only the tip of the iceberg. There is much more that the ordinary passenger never gets to be aware of.

The modern aircraft has mind-boggling inbuilt safety processes, with monitoring of all conceivable eventualities and automation of remedial measures. Some have argued that the weakest link for airline safety is not the machine itself, but the human.

Safety in the medical industry draws many lessons from the airline industry. Every year, many patients die from inadvertent medical errors. Can these errors ever be eliminated? Will medical safety ever equate to airline safety, or even surpass it at some point?

Both industries have the human factor playing roles that cannot be automated, at least in this generation. But there still remains plenty of room for improvement in medical safety.

Before a plane takes off, pilots go through a flight check-list. This ensures that everything is in place, and all systems are functional. You will find similar check-lists in medicine. You will have noticed that you keep getting asked to confirm your name and date of birth whenever you are about to have a medical intervention. You get asked about allergies and current medications, in addition to repeated examinations, tests and umpteen rechecking of your vital signs. All might appear as boring routines, but it’s all in the interests of your safety.

Once airborne, most passengers just relax in the knowledge that the risk of any catastrophe is miniscule. Precision monitoring and modern navigation allow auto-piloting to the eventual destination. Your pilot can have a snooze if they wish.

The medical industry is not too dissimilar in monitoring and automation. If having an operation for example, all sorts of monitors ensure continued optimization of bodily functioning whilst under anesthesia. The surgeon too can be automated to an extent, but they can’t really doze off at some point!

If an aircraft drops from the skies, a thorough investigation is usually undertaken to try and understand why the accident happened. And how to prevent a similar accident from ever happening again. The medical industry has taken this up as well. So called medical audits are aimed at understanding how medical errors and complications happen, and how to prevent them from recurring.

Back to the human. The airline industry is yet to work out how to replace human pilots with programmable humanoids. If and whenever this happens, airline accidents will only exist in the annals of history. What about medicine?

We already have robots that can operate on humans, and complex software algorithms that can analyze your characteristics and propose a diagnosis and treatment. But the human doctor remains indispensable for now, meaning medical errors are way off from complete elimination.

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