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ATale of Two Stories:
Contrasting Views of
Report from a Workshop on
Assembling the Scientific Basis for Progress
on Patient Safety
National Health Care Safety Council of the
National Patient Safety Foundation at the AMA
A Tale of Two Stories:
Contrasting Views of
Report from a Workshop on
Assembling the Scientific Basis
for Progress on Patient Safety
National Health Care Safety Council of the
National Patient Safety Foundation
at the AMA
University of Chicago
Ohio State University
National Patient Safety Foundation
at the AMA
Supported by grants from:
US Department of Veterans Affairs
Agency for Health Care Policy & Research
Richard I.Cook,MD, is Assistant Professor in the Department of Anesthesia
and Critical Care at the University of Chicago in Chicago, IL. He is
Director of the Cognitive Technologies Laboratory.He is also a member of
the Board of Directors and the Executive Committee of the National Patient
Safety Foundation at the AMA.His e-mail address is:email@example.com.
David D.Woods,PhD, is Professor in the Institute for Ergonomics at The Ohio
State University in Columbus,OH.He is also the Chair of the National Health
Care Safety Council of the National Patient Safety Foundation at the AMA.
His e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Charlotte Miller,formerly on the staff of the National Patient Safety Foundation,
was responsible for organizing the workshop and capturing the results.
The NPSF greatfully acknowledges the support of its founding and major
sponsors: The American Medical Association, 3M, CNA/HealthPro and
© 1998 National Patient Safety Foundation at the AMA.Permission to reprint
portions of this publication is granted subject to prior written consent and
appropriate credit given to the National Patient Safety Foundation at the AMA.
Focus on “Patient Safety”
Patient safety is a growing concern for the public, policy-makers, and all
those who are involved in the delivery of health care services. The phrase
“patient safety” is, admittedly, only beginning to achieve currency within
the health care community and is not yet widely used among the general
public. However, concerns about patient safety have found expression in
the media reports of highly publicized medical mistakes (e.g. “the wrong
leg”); in medical journal articles examining error in medicine (see Lucian
Leape’s 1994 JAMA article of that title) and studies of error (e.g. work by
David W. Bates et al. on medication errors); and in the organizational
responses of medical, regulatory and governmental bodies (e.g. the
sentinel events policy of JCAHO; the inclusion of “reducing health care
errors” as a goal in the report of the President’s Quality Commission).
In the midst of ever-increasing technological complexity and the massive
organizational changes in health care service delivery in this country,
patient safety has emerged from the ambient public discussions of quality
and cost as a feature that deserves special consideration.
This new emphasis on patient safety was galvanized during the landmark
conference “Examining Errors In Health Care: Developing a Prevention,
Education and Research Agenda” held in October 1996 at the Annenberg
Center for Health Sciences. It was an unprecedented multi-disciplinary
gathering—every sector, from patients to practitioners, administrators,
health plans, and regulators, plus researchers, ethicists, lawyers, risk
managers and quality professionals, was represented. At Annenberg, we
started to find new ways to talk and think about a subject that had never
been considered so broadly and openly in health care before.
Annenberg also marked the inception of the National Patient Safety
Foundation (NPSF) at the AMA, an independent not-for-profit
organization devoted to assuring patient safety in the delivery of health
care. NPSF is modeled after the Anesthesiology Patient Safety
Foundation, which was founded in 1985.
Assembling the Scientific Basis for Patient Safety
The heightened focus on patient safety has generated a concomitant
interest in learning more about the body of research on the human
contributions to safety in complex systems, a body of work that has
developed largely outside the health care domain. More broadly, the
health care community also stands to benefit by learning how other
complex, high risk enterprises—such as aviation, marine shipping, or
power generation—have confronted considerable technical and political
challenges in the pursuit of safe operations and public confidence.
The National Patient Safety Foundation (NPSF) at the AMA, the
Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the Agency for Health Care
Policy and Research (AHCPR) are committed to learning about, using,
and adding to the established research base on safety. As a first step
towards realizing that goal, the NPSF, with critical financial support from
the VA and AHCPR, convened the workshop “Assembling the Scientific
Basis for Progress on Patient Safety” in Chicago in December of 1997.
This report from the workshop provides a much-needed grounding in the
technical knowledge relevant to patient safety—the “state of the art” of
the multidisciplinary approaches that have proven productive in other
domains and have only begun to be applied to research in health care.
The report gives insight into what kinds of research are likely to yield
interesting and productive results. Like the workshop itself, the report
draws together a collection of threads to make a fabric upon which to
pattern future work.
Furthermore, the workshop has helped to achieve another important
goal: stimulating the participation of the safety research community in
projects within health care. Individual researchers who participated in
the workshop have already become involved with our organizations in
a variety of ways, for example, in the design of a national patient safety
system at the VA and in the launch of the NPSF’s first round of
Finally, the workshop has provided the impetus for the NPSF to establish
the National Health Care Safety Council. This standing body of
organizational design, human factors and other experts will serve as
a “technical backbone” informing all NPSF activities and as a resource
Patient Safety Activities of NPSF, VA and AHCPR
Our shared commitment to cultivating a strong technical knowledge base
for patient safety activities is part of a broader array of patient safety
initiatives that our organizations are pursuing.
The mission of the National Patient Safety Foundation is to measurably
improve patient safety in the delivery of health care. The Foundation was
launched by the American Medical Association in 1997 as an independent
not-for-profit research and education organization comprising a broad
partnership representing consumer advocates; health care providers;
health product manufacturers; employers and payers (public and private);
researchers; and regulators and policy-makers. NPSF serves as the forum
for a diverse group of concerned individuals to think and talk about the
issues and impediments to patient safety. The NPSF seeks to be a catalyst
for action and a vehicle to support change and track improvements in
The NPSF has adopted four core strategies:
1. Promote research on human and organizational error and prevention of
avoidable patient injuries in health care.
2. Promote the application of knowledge to enhance patient safety.
3. Develop information, collaborative relationships and educational
approaches that advance patient safety.
4. Raise awareness and foster communications and dialogue to enhance
The US Department of Veterans Affairs launched a public-private
partnership to improve patient safety in 1997. This endeavor supports
the development of a number of bold initiatives focused on implementing
patient safety programs within the enormous VA health care system and
making the results of those efforts available as examples that can benefit
health care beyond the VA system. One example of the VA’s activities is
the development of a patient safety reporting system, which draws on the
experience of the aviation community’s successful Aviation Safety Reporting
System (ASRS) and also the discussion of issues relating to incident
reporting and analysis in general that took place at the workshop. The VA is
also sponsoring research, pioneering system-wide implementation of patient
safety interventions, and striving to create a new patient safety culture.
The Agency for Health Care Policy and Research (AHCPR), a part of the
US Department of Health and Human Services, is the lead Federal agency
charged with supporting research designed to improve the quality and
outcomes of health care, reduce its cost, and broaden access to and use of
essential services. AHCPR assists caregivers, patients, plan managers,
purchasers, and policymakers by developing and disseminating practical,
science-based information about the effectiveness, cost, and cost-
effectiveness of health care services and alternative approaches for
organizing and delivering those services. AHCPR supported Dr. Lucian
Leape’s pioneering work on adverse drug events that focused the nation’s
attention on patient safety issues. The Agency continues to support patient
safety efforts in many of its research programs, including its practice and
technology assessments, outcomes and effectiveness research, organization
and delivery studies, and quality measurement and improvement research.
The NPSF, VA and AHCPR are pleased to have sponsored the workshop
“Assembling the Scientific Basis for Progress on Patient Safety.” We
anticipate that this report from the workshop will be the first in a series
that, in one way or another, have their origins in the discussion that took
place during those two days last December. We hope it is useful to you and
that you join us in working for patient safety.
Nancy Dickey, MD Kenneth W. Kizer, MD John Eisenberg, MD
National Patient Safety US Department of Agency for Health Care
Foundation at the AMA Veterans Affairs Policy & Research
Table of Contents
Tables and Figures
Health Care After Its “Three Mile Island”
Day One - Contrasting Cases
● Celebrated Accidents
● The View of Patient Safety from Celebrated Cases
● Uncelebrated Cases: The Second Story
● #1: Bile duct injuries during laparoscopic cholecystectomy
● #2: Antibody misidentification and transfusion reactions
● #3: Drug misadministrations via computerized infusion devices in
the operating room
Day Two - Incident Reporting and Analysis
● Lessons from the Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS)
● Incident Classification and Analysis
● Learning from Incidents and Accidents
A.List of Participants
B.Lessons Learned From Incident Reporting in Aviation (text of talk
given by Charles Billings on December 16, 1997)
C.List of Sourcebook Materials Distributed to Workshop Participants
Table of Contents
Tables and Figures
Table 1 “Celebrated” medical accidents
Table 2 The sequence of events in the investigation of four
operating room incidents involving misadministrations
via an infusion device.
Figure 1 The view of patient safety based on celebrated cases.
Figure 2 Hindsight does not equal foresight.
Figure 3 The blunt end of a complex system controls the resources
and constraints that confront the practitioner at the
Figure 4 A stage in an antibody identification problem using an
enhanced electronic version of the original paper form
with computer-based critiquing.
Figure 5 Protocol describing the interaction between
anesthesiologists and an infusion device during an
operating room incident.
A great many people contributed to make the workshop possible and
successful. We would like to express our deepest appreciation and
● Martin Hatlie, the Executive Director of the National Patient Safety
Foundation (NPSF) at the AMA for his encouragement and tireless work
to create the National Health Care Safety Council as a part of the
Foundation and to initiate this workshop as its first activity.
● The United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the Agency
for Health Care Policy & Research (AHCPR) for sponsoring and
participating in the workshop, for their leadership on patient safety, and
for their willingness to listen to the results from other fields in the search
for progress on safety in health care.
● The many participants in the workshop who gave of their time, energy,
and intellect to wrestle with the difficult questions that underlie safety in
the complex and changing world of health care.
● The Board of the American Medical Association for providing the
facilities to hold the workshop.
● The staff of the National Patient Safety Foundation who provided
critical assistance over long hours to set up, run and document the
workshop so smoothly.
Many people helped to prepare this report as a means to share the ideas
and interchanges at the meeting with others. In particular, we would like
to recognize the contributions of Carter Mecher, MD, Larry Goldman, MD
and Jeffrey Cooper, PhD who provided valuable comments to help the
shape the content of the report.
A special thanks is due to Lorri Zipperer, Information Project Manager of
the NPSF who led the production and editorial process. She, along with
George Kruto who indexed the material, Rosalyn Robinson of the AMA
who coordinated the printing, and Karen Dangremond, of Dangremond
Design, Chicago, Il. who created the layout and design of the text, handled
the myriad aspects required to produce this document. Thanks Lorri for
coordinating everyone and applying the right mixture of tact and
forcefulness to make this report come to fruition.
Richard I. Cook David D. Woods
it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of
belief, it was the epoch of disbelief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was
the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of
hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had
nothing before us, we were all going to Heaven, we were all going direct
the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that
some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or
evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
— Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, 1859
Exploring contrasts is a powerful means for achieving new insight.
Dickens juxtaposes contrasting individual stories to tell the much larger
story of the French Revolution and the Terror. The first line of the novel
points out that the contrasts are striking, provocative, paradoxical, and
compelling. Far from resolving the contrasts in favor of one position or
the other, the novel shows how this period contained all of these qualities.
For health care at the end of the twentieth century, it is also the best of
times and the worst of times, a time of paradoxes and contrasts. On the
one hand, splendid new knowledge, more finely honed skills, and
technical advances bring sophisticated treatments to larger and more
fragile populations of people than ever before. On the other hand, media
and public attention is focused on “celebrated” medical accidents—
chemotherapy overdoses, wrong limb surgeries, catastrophic missed
diagnoses. Stunning success and appalling failure are arrayed in contrast
to each other. It is in this setting that discussions about patient safety are
now taking place.
Because the sources of safety and the threats to safety remain poorly
understood and because scientific research on health care safety is in its
infancy, the National Patient Safety Foundation at the AMA, with
sponsorship from the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Agency for
Health Care Policy Research, convened a workshop in December 1997 to
assemble results from the science on human performance and safety from
past research in other areas.
The workshop was structured around the stark contrasts between two
kinds of stories we tell about accidents. Some accidents become highly
visible, widely known, “celebrated” cases, e.g., the Florida ‘wrong leg’
case. In the first story we tell about such cases, we are puzzled. Given
what we now know after-the-fact, they seem so easily preventable and the
human performance so poor. We can see how the outcome could have
been avoided if the people involved had just recognized the significance
of some data or if they had been more careful in carrying out an activity.
We fall back on explanations such as “human error” and stop, wondering
how we can cope with the unreliability of the human element.
Itwas the best of times, it was the worst of times,
Results from close, methodical, scientific investigation of specific areas
of practice in health care where failures occur (e.g., the vulnerabilities
that contribute to patient injury during minimally invasive gall bladder
surgery) tell a different, deeper and more complicated story. The
detailed investigations are second stories revealing the multiple subtle
vulnerabilities of the larger system which contribute to failures, detecting
the adaptations human practitioners develop to try to cope with or guard
against these vulnerabilities, and capturing the ways in which success and
failure are closely related.
The second stories examine how changes in technology, procedures,
and organizations, combine with economic pressures to create new
vulnerabilities and forms of failure at the same time that they create new
forms of economic and therapeutic success. The result is paradoxical:
health care becomes simultaneously more successful and more vulnerable
(or vulnerable in new ways). The changes that create opportunities and
vulnerabilities also encourage human adaptation to exploit opportunity and
defend against vulnerability. Individuals, teams and organizations adapt
their practices and tools to guard against known threats to safety. But
complexity limits the success of these adaptations. Hazards are hidden,
tradeoffs difficult to assess, and the coupling across seemingly distant parts
Digging for second stories is valuable because it promotes learning about
systemic vulnerabilities. The efforts of individuals, teams and
organizations to make safety are limited. People and organizations
may miss or misperceive the vulnerabilities and how they come together
to create paths toward failure; they may rely too much on human
adaptability; they may develop brittle strategies, or they may rely on
past success when change creates new challenges. How well people and
organizations make safety depends on feedback to recognize systemic
vulnerabilities, to evaluate the robustness of their adaptations and to
understand how the changing context of medical practice affects
vulnerabilities. Recognizing systemic vulnerabilities guides investments
to cope with these contributors toward failure. Promoting this flow of
information to learn about systemic vulnerabilities is one of the hallmarks
of a safety culture.
In the workshop and in this report, the contrast between celebrated
medical failures and well researched areas of human performance in
medicine is used to expose the difference between the First Story of
“human error” and the Second Story of systemic vulnerabilities. The
different stories reveal another contrast about progress—only by
constantly seeking out our vulnerabilities can we develop and test more
robust practices to enhance safety.
Increased Visibility for
ecent accidents in health care have fueled a growing interest in
patient safety. These highly publicized accidents have occurred
against a backdrop of substantial changes in the organization,
delivery, and economics of health care. Together, these events lead to
substantial public pressures to make progress on safety. As a result,
many health care organizations are focusing more on patient safety.
For example, patient safety has been the theme of major health care
meetings (e.g., “Examining Error in Health Care: Developing a
Prevention, Education and Research Agenda,” held October 1996 at
the Annenberg Center for Health Sciences, Rancho Mirage, California.),
a 1998 Presidential Advisory Commission on Health Care has included
patient safety as a high national priority, and major journals have
recognized the topic (Leape, 1994).
The widespread interest leads immediately to two questions: “How do we
make progress on patient safety in the longer term” and “What are the
‘low hanging fruit’ that we can pick to have an impact quickly?”
Many interested parties have widely varying ideas about the answers to
these questions. Some consumer advocates desire greater public access to
records about the past performance of physicians or hospitals. Other
commentators promote technology as the key to progress, for example,
proposing computerized physician order entry to reduce medication errors.
Many want to implement more accident or ‘close call’ reporting systems to
help identify troublespots.
How do we sort through all of these varying proposals? On what basis do
we decide which proposals merit investment and change? However
plausible and beneficial each proposal sounds, how can we be assured it is
based on an accurate understanding of the complex factors at work? Can
we distinguish approaches that will produce real progress and enhance
safety from those that will lead to dead ends?
A systematic, research-based approach to the current window of
opportunity on patient safety digs deeper to ask additional questions:
● What do we know about the human contribution to safety and
● How can we use this knowledge base to recognize opportunities for and
obstacles to progress on patient safety?
● What does this knowledge base tell us about constructive ways to move
● How do we add to this knowledge base, given unique aspects of
different health care settings?
A research base on the human contribution to safety and failure in areas
outside medicine has been built up over about the last 20 years. This
base of knowledge has come from an intense cross-disciplinary
examination of this topic driven by a series of highly visible accidents, as
well as other less celebrated cases, in industries such as power generation
and transportation (e.g., Three Mile Island nuclear power accident in
1979, the capsizing of the Herald of Free Enterprise in 1982, and various
aircraft accidents). The participants in this work have come from a
variety of disciplines including human performance, cognitive psychology,
social psychology and organizational behavior, among others.
To make sense of these accidents and to develop ways to enhance safety,
various researchers have collected data about the multiple human,
technological, and organizational factors that contribute to accidents;
investigated the normal functioning of these settings; developed new
concepts and theoretical frameworks; and re-examined common
assumptions. The result has been a “new look” at the human contribution
to both safety and risk (e.g., Reason, 1990; 1997).
This “new look” is based on research that goes beyond the label “human
error.” The usual judgment after an accident is that human error was the
cause, a conclusion which often serves as the stopping
point for the
investigation of the case. As a result, safety problems typically are seen
solely or primarily as “human error” problems.
In contrast, when the label human error becomes the star
ting point for
investigations, we find a deeper, multi-faceted story. This “second” story
shows us how multiple interacting factors in complex systems can combine
to produce systemic vulnerabilities to failure. The second story is more
complicated but more interesting and can point the way to effective
learning and system improvements.
Research as a Guide for
The National Patient Safety Foundation (NPSF) is a new organization
dedicated to advancing safety in health care. Among other initiatives, the
Foundation is committed to learning about, using and adding to the
established research base on safety.
The creation of this strong technical
backbone for the Foundation will not only help inform its priorities for
future work, but will also help to assure that the Foundation’s efforts
produce progress on patient safety.
To this end in December 1997, a workshop format was used to bring
together some 20 researchers and an equal number of interested leaders
from health care. Each researcher is an internationally acknowledged
expert in some aspect of human performance evaluation, cognitive
psychology, or organizational behavior (a list of the participants is attached
in Appendix A). The overall objective of the workshop, “Assembling the
Scientific Basis for Progress on Patient Safety,” was to develop a basis for
providing sound technical advice to the National Patient Safety
Foundation, a basis grounded in the research on human error, system
failures, and organizational factors.
The workshop was conducted as a wide-ranging, highly informed
conversation that played off the contrasts
between celebrated medical
failures and other cases that are less publicized but contain a significant
research base on human performance. A Sourcebook of materials about the
celebrated and uncelebrated cases helped participants prepare for the
workshop (see Appendix C for a list of the articles).
The “celebrated” cases, as a group, capture the reactions of different
stakeholders to medical failure. The explanations for how these cases
came about are a kind of story we, as a society, tell after the fact in order
to learn from the failure and to decide what kinds of changes are needed.
In telling that story stakeholders focus on a few of the factors and actors
that could be seen as contributing to the sequence of events. Which
factors and actors come to be regarded as most responsible depends on the
kind of stakeholder, common beliefs about the role human performance,
common beliefs about why systems succeed and fail, and the normal
human processes for attributing causes to surprising events. The story
that results represents a model of the threats to patient safety and
presumes that certain changes will address or eliminate these threats.
This treatment represents the “first” story.
In contrast, another set of cases, uncelebrated but well researched, reveal
a “second” story. This story captures how the system usually works to
manage risks but sometimes fails. When researchers pursue the second
A National Patient Safety
The Foundation has established the National Health Care Safety Council, comprised of safety experts drawn
from various disciplines and domains to help accomplish this goal. This workshop provided the first opportunity
for assembling the kind of expertise that will comprise the safety council.
story they broaden the scope of inquiry in ways that lead them to identify
systemic vulnerabilities that contribute to failures. The result is a very
different view of the patient safety landscape, a view that highlights many
factors that the first story ignores.
Each uncelebrated case yields interesting results but together they have
broad implications for how to make progress on patient safety. Analyzing
the uncelebrated cases as models of patient safety research represents a
substantial departure from the usual, first story based approaches. The
concepts and methods used in the research for these cases can serve as a
model for approaches to other areas in health care.
The workshop also examined lessons from incident reporting and analysis
activities in other domains. This topic often is cited as a key initial step
toward enhanced safety in health care. The departure point for this
portion of the workshop was a presentation on the lessons learned as
aviation safety experts sought to develop a system for collecting and
analyzing incidents. An edited version of this brief, but powerful
presentation is attached in Appendix B.
The workshop used the contrasts between first and second stories to evoke
participants’ comments about research on patient safety. The result was
a dynamic and complex exchange. The discussion did not point to any
simple answers. Rather it produced some strong indications of where and
how fundamental progress can be made. It also showed how some of the
approaches health care organizations often adopt have proved to be of
limited value in other settings.
The contrasts between these two kinds of stories about patient safety also
provide the structure for this report. The report conveys much of the
flavor of being there, but does not attempt to reproduce the entire
discussion. Instead, it represents the authors’ construction of the central
themes and concepts that emerged from the discussion, based on an
analysis of the verbatim transcript of the meeting and the sourcebook
materials. Far from being the final word on these important topics, we
hope the contrasts captured in this report will broaden other discussions
of safety and ground these debates in the basic results from past research.
t the beginning of the workshop, an analogy was made between
the state of health care today and conditions in the nuclear
power industry in 1979 after it was staggered by the Three Mile
The Three Mile Island accident was a watershed for the nuclear power
industry. It irrevocably changed the way people looked at nuclear safety,
and this change created both the possibility
of and the need for new
approaches to safety in that industry.
While there is no single medical event comparable to the Three Mile
Island accident, the combined effect of the celebrated medical failures
over the last few years is similar. The attention these cases have received,
and the debate and action they have engendered, signal a fundamental
shift in public perceptions of patient safety. Although the cases are spread
out geographically and involve different kinds of failures, in combination
they have shifted the public perception of the sources of risk and failure in
medicine. The founding of the National Patient Safety Foundation (NPSF)
itself is a marker for this change, as are recent initiatives from regulatory,
advisory, and legislative bodies.
Health care stands in 1998 where nuclear power stood at the end of 1979.
There are growing public demands to enhance patient safety. There is
public concern that the financial pressures and organizational change in
health care will degrade practitioners’ expertise, create conflicting goals
and incentives, increase workload, and reduce safety margins. There
are concerns about the nature of training and certification of practitioners
and institutions. There are anxieties about injuries from a panoply of
technological devices, drugs, and techniques. Not everyone is concerned,
nor are all in agreement about the sources of hazard or the appropriate
responses. There is confusion and argument about the meanings of
events. In this, there is a close parallel to the time just after the Three
Mile Island accident.
Health Care After Its
Three Mile Island”
This situation is fraught with promise and also with risk, hence, “it is the
best of times, and the worst of times” to explore safety in health care.
Despite the fact that celebrated and uncelebrated cases underscore
medicine’s fallibility, health care today is more technically advanced than
it has been at any other moment in history. But the ever advancing state-
of-the-art of medicine has been coupled with ever increasing complexity.
Against a backdrop of organizational change and economic pressures, the
increasing complexity of health care increases the possibilities for
unanticipated and unintended consequences. As a result, even more
opportunities for failure may exist.
The intense interest generated by medical accidents may provide
opportunities to advance patient safety. Political will and economic
investment follow public attention and can provide the energy to
implement meaningful change in health care. On the other hand, there is
a downside to this sort of public attention. The need to do something, to
react quickly, to provide visible (if not substantive) evidence of progress,
may result in a rush to implement unproductive or counterproductive
programs. It may even result in direct efforts to manipulate the image of
safety to promote political or economic interests.
In this context, we asked the gathered experts on safety related issues to
help us take the existing research base as a guide for how we could move
forward on safety in health care.
To this end we posed a series of safety-related questions to the
● What lessons can we learn from studies of failure and success in other
● What scientific knowledge is available regarding the human contribution
to risk and safety?
● Given the scope and complexity of health care, the diverse collection of
issues that influence individual health care practitioners and coordination
across health care teams, technological factors, organizational context, and
regulatory pressures—What are the opportunities and obstacles for
making progress on patient safety?
● What can the research base teach different stakeholders in health care
about the factors that produce failure?
● What can the research base tell us about the kinds of investments and
changes that will enhance safety?
● What cautions or warnings about unproductive or counterproductive
approaches are needed?
● What meaningful guidance can we provide about the priorities for
future research and applications?
Health Care After Its “Three Mile Island”
or the first day of the workshop, the discussion was organized around
specific cases of celebrated accidents and uncelebrated areas of
research related to patient safety. These cases served as a framework
within which to elaborate issues, opportunities, obstacles and perspectives
The “celebrated” cases are medical accidents that have attracted a great
deal of attention from the public and the press (Table 1; Figure 1). The
reports of these cases have led to a variety of reactions from health care
professionals, regulators, and the public. Interestingly, many of these cases
have achieved such a level of prominence in the collective public psyche
that one can elicit a collection of images simply by mentioning the “Florida
wrong leg or Willie King case” or the “Betsy Lehman case” or the “Libby
Zion case.” All of these cases evoke our empathy for some tragic loss.
These cases also have become symbolic in other ways. The case of Willie
King in Florida, in becoming the “wrong leg case,” captures our collective
dread of wrong site surgery. The death of Libby Zion has come to
represent not just the danger of drug-drug interaction but also the issues
of work hours and supervision of residents – capturing symbolically
our fear of medical care at the hands of overworked, tired, or novice
practitioners without adequate supervision. Celebrated cases such as
these serve as markers in the discussion of the health care system and
patient safety. As such, the reactions to these tragic losses become the
the starting point for discussions of obstacles and opportunities to
Day One –
The sourcebook distributed to participants contained background on a
selection of these cases. Most of the available material comes from
newspaper articles on a specific case. Also included were two broader
perspectives from reporters looking across multiple health care accidents
and attempting to synthesize a more coherent picture of accidents in
general (Lisa Belkin, New York Times, June 15, 1997; Steve Twedt,
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, October 24-31, 1993).
The sourcebook also included a column by the news commentator Sidney
Zion, father of Libby Zion. This commentary appeared following a media
briefing conducted by the National Patient Safety Foundation. It conveys
some of the charged atmosphere surrounding public discourse on patient
safety issues. It may presage the sorts of communication difficulties that
will confront those who seek to develop and explore a more technically
Typically there are no independent investigations of the sequence of events
and contributors to the outcome such as those done by the National
Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) following aviation accidents. As a
result, we often must rely on news reports, but other sources of
information may be available. In the “wrong leg” case there is also an
official document prepared by a Florida hearing officer. This provides the
legal rationale for the revocation of the surgeon’s license and gives an
account of the chain of events leading to the amputation of the wrong leg.
The materials for the Ben Kolb case include a set of statements giving the
perspectives of the hospital CEO, the risk manager, the physician, the
medical liability insurer, and the family.
Day One — Contrasting Cases
Celebrated Case… …an example of…
Florida wrong leg case Wrong limb/site surgery (symmetry failure)
(the Wille King case)
Betsy Lehman case Chemotherapy overdose
Gargano case Chemotherapy overdose
Ben Kolb case Epinephrine/local anesthetic solution swap
Libby Zion case Drug-drug interaction
New York doctor Injection port identification failure (criminalized)
Colorado nurses case Route of administration failure (criminalized)
Note:Since the conference,there have been reports that the surgeon involved in the "wrong leg" case has been
involved in a "wrong patient" case. Again, there is a first story that focuses on the individual,but also glimmers of a
deeper second story that could reveal more about general vulnerabilities to this kind of failure.
Since the conference,the criminal proceedings against the Colorado nurses have been resolved (see ISMP
Medication Safety Alert!Volume 3, Issue 3, February 11, 1998 from the Institute for Safe Medication Practices at
The First Story
Each of the celebrated cases consists of a relatively straightforward, simple,
and easily understood story constructed after the accident. This first story
typically explains the accident in terms of a simple cause, usually human
operator error. The people held responsible are those closest in time and
space to the final outcome, especially those who, it is believed, could have
acted in another way that would have led to a different outcome. Their
behavior, with knowledge in hindsight of the tragic outcome, appears to be
outrageous, willful disregard of critical cues or factors. In retrospect, each
failure seems preventable by relatively simple means, such as new policies
and procedures or calls to increase the “vigilance” of practitioners. Finding
the culprit ends the investigation.
Each celebrated case has come to represent a specific threat to safety for
the public and for people in health care. Figure 1 shows schematically the
relationship between the celebrated cases and the sources of failure they
seem to represent. However, the reactions in these celebrated cases
provides only a partial view of the hazards and of the factors that
contribute to failures.
Figure 1. The view of
patient safety based on
The View of Patient
Safety from Celebrated
Day One — Contrasting Cases
Copyright © 1998 by Richard I.Cook, MD
In the “wrong leg case,” for example, public attention focused on the
surgeon. However, this case represents a larger class of failures that arise
because of the symmetry of the human body. Bilateral symmetry (paired
organs, limbs, etc.) creates the inherent risk of wrong site, wrong side,
wrong limb failures. This risk is well known. Health care practitioners
and organizations recognize this risk and have a variety of defenses
against just this sort of accident. Cases like the Florida wrong leg
amputation are situations where all the defenses broke down or were
ineffective. They point, not so much to inadequate defenses, as to a
systemic inability to maintain these defenses in working order in the face
of a variety of pressures. Indeed, the accident is a potential source of data
about the larger system that delivers care, not simply about a flawed
individual. Understanding the factors that bypassed or undermined the
defenses in this case would help us learn in ways that could be applied to
other situations, practitioners, and organizations.
The response to failure is the most significant feature of each of the
celebrated cases. The affected organization usually creates new policies
or procedures in the hope of forestalling any repeat of this particular
accident. For example, several celebrated cases have involved medication
misadministrations. Responses have included efforts to more tightly
control the use of the particular drugs by imposing the requirements for
more elaborate checks and additional steps in prescribing and dispensing
However, some drug misadministrations point to a broader risk related to
drugs with a low therapeutic index. These are drugs where the effective
dose is near the toxic dose. Recognizing this class of drugs and associated
risks can help illuminate weaknesses in the defenses deployed to mitigate
those risks. Drug-drug interactions, e.g. the Libby Zion case, represent a
hidden low-therapeutic index situation that contributes to the outcome in
The response to the failure also provides significant data about how
attributions of causality are made and how responses to a widely
publicized failure are driven by a variety of factors. The limited ability of
the regulatory bodies to influence safety in a direct way is one remarkable
characteristic of the ‘wrong leg’ accident. The regulators’ choice to “send a
message” by revoking the surgeon’s medical license is itself an interesting
feature of the case. The decision to send such a message and phrase it in
this fashion signals a set of beliefs about which factors lead to failure,
which interventions can change those factors, and how health care
practitioners are expected to react to these messages. These beliefs
constitute one model of how people contribute to safety and risk. The
scientific question is, do these beliefs correspond to accurate models of the
factors that affect success and failure and of the factors that enhance or
degrade the performance of health care practitioners?
Day One — Contrasting Cases
Taken together, the celebrated cases were tantalizing to the researchers.
They indicate the potential for catastrophic failure in health care. They
also demonstrate the way that these failures can capture public attention,
evoke outrage, and provide impetus for regulatory action.
But the cases are also remarkable for their limitations. The workshop
participants rapidly tried to move beyond this “first” story into a
discussion of the deeper “second” story that lies behind such cases.
However, in each instance, the story told after the event is too simple. Its
details are too limited to serve as the basis for understanding the interplay
of the multiple contributors that led to the accident. While the accounts
of the celebrated failures do tell us a great deal about the social r
to failure, the participants observed that the celebrated cases do little to
broaden our understanding of the other risks that exist in health care, the
sources of these vulnerabilities, or the means for reducing them.
To better understand systemic vulnerabilities to failure and to see how
failure is usually prevented requires collecting a different kind of data,
analyzed in different ways, that reveal a different story. To accomplish this
requires analysis based on concepts grounded in the research base about the
factors that affect the many different kinds of human performance relevant
to health care settings. In particular, the researchers recognized the impact
of hindsight bias on the construction of these first stories of accidents.
The Hindsight Bias
The tendency to attribute accidents in health care to simple causes such
as isolated human failures is derived in part from a particular form of
bias that clouds post-accident reviews of human performance. It is well
documented that knowledge of outcome biases our later judgments about
the processes that led up to that outcome (See Figure 2). The way we
look back is shaped by the outcome. That outcome knowledge, however,
was not available to the participants before the fact. In looking back we
tend to oversimplify the situation the actual practitioners faced. This
blocks our ability to see the more complicated, richer story behind the
label human error.
The hindsight bias
effect is a well reproduced research finding relevant to
accident analysis and reactions to failure.
In the typical study, two groups
of judges are told a story and asked to evaluate the performance of
characters in the story. The story is identically told for each group of
judges with a single exception: the difference is the outcome of the story.
One group is told the episode ended in a poor outcome (death, significant
Day One — Contrasting Cases
See Woods et al.(1994),chapter 6 for an overview of the research. For the original studies see Fischhoff, B.
(1975). Hindsight ≠ foresight: The effect of outcome knowledge on judgement under uncertainty. Journal of
Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance,I, 288-299 and Baron,J. and Hershey,J. (1988).Outcome
bias in decision evaluation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,54, 569-579. For a replication in medicine,see
Caplan,R., Posner, K., and Cheney,F. (1991). Effect of outcome on physician judgements of appropriateness of care.
Journal of the American Medical Association,165, 1957-1960.
loss, etc.). The other group is told that the outcome was good (minor injury,
insignificant loss or even some gain). The two groups of judges consistently
differ in their assessment of the story characters’ performance. Judges told
of the bad outcome assess the performance as flawed. Judges told that
the outcome was successful assess the performance as acceptable. The
differences are stark, repeatable, and strong. In fact, hindsight bias impacts
judgments even when judges are warned that the outcome knowledge may
influence their ability to make assessments.
It is clear that hindsight bias poses a great obstacle to understanding patient
safety through celebrated cases. The powerful outcomes of these accidents
shape the way that post-accident (looking back) judgments of human
performance are made. This bias limits the value of these cases because
the debris of outcome obscures the complexity of the situation confronting
practitioners. This leads to simple “first stories” of accidents and,
paradoxically, limits what can be learned about safety from such events.
The next phase of the workshop provided a contrast to the celebrated cases
in the form of “uncelebrated” cases where some research base was
available. The cases highlight some of the factors that affect success and
failure in the practice of medicine. More importantly, the cases demonstrate
the kinds of factors that affect the success and failure of r
esearch on human
expertise and its role in system performance. In contrast to the celebrated
cases, a multi-faceted story about how the system works and how it
sometimes fails unfolds in the investigations.
Figure 2. Hindsight does
not equal foresight.
Knowledge of outcome
biases our judgment
about the processes that
led up to that outcome.
The Second Story
Day One — Contrasting Cases
Copyright © 1997 by Richard I.Cook, MD
In this section, we provide a summary of what was presented about the
three uncelebrated cases. Then we draw out some of the larger
implications of each case for patient safety in general based on the
discussion at the workshop and the research results themselves.
While the details of the uncelebrated cases are distinct, they have at least
five features in common.
First, each uncelebrated case shows that bad outcomes flow not from
single-point failures but from a set of factors
. The research reveals that
these factors are each necessary but only jointly sufficient to cause an
accident. The analysis in the uncelebrated cases exposes the system issues
and latent factors that contribute to failure.
Second, these investigations show that enhancing safety begins with efforts
to understand not just the sources of failure but also the sour
ces of success.
System operations are seldom trouble-free. In every close examination of
complex systems in operation, observers find many more opportunities for
failure than actual accidents. The difference between the high potential for
failure and the low rate of failure is produced largely by practitioners.
Much of expertise and skill is directed towards preventing poor outcomes or
recovering from problems before their consequences impact on the patient.
Each investigation shows how practitioners resolve conflicts, anticipate
hazards, accommodate variation and change, cope with surprise, work
around obstacles, close gaps between plans and real situations, detect and
recover from miscommunications and misassessments. In these activities
practitioners regularly forestall or deflect potential accident trajectories.
Put another way, human practitioners are not so much the cause of
occasional sporadic accidents as they are the active agents that regularly
contribute to success. When they carry out their roles successfully, they are
the active creators of safety. Safety research tries to identify factors that
undermine practitioners’ ability to do this successfully.
Third, the research results shift attention away from the people closest to
the accident and toward the blunt end of the system where regulatory,
administrative, and organizational factors reside. Complex systems such as
health care or aviation have both a sharp end
and a blunt end (Figure 3).
The sharp end is where practitioners interact directly with the hazardous
process in their roles as pilots, mechanics, air traffic controllers, and, in
medicine, as nurses, physicians, technicians, pharmacists and others.
At the blunt end of the health care system are regulators, administrators,
economic policy makers, and technology suppliers. The blunt end of the
system is the source of the resources and constraints that form the
environment in which practitioners work. The blunt end is also the source
of demands for production that sharp end practitioners must meet. The
Day One — Contrasting Cases
demands are often conflicted, as when the blunt end provides incentives for
greater production while simultaneously demanding lower rates of failure.
The more safety researchers have looked at the sharp end, the more they
have realized that the real story behind accidents depends on the way that
resources, constraints, incentives, and demands produced by the blunt end
shape the environment and influence the behavior of the people at the sharp
end (Reason, 1997). Detailed examination of accidents in these systems
consistently shows that the ability of sharp end practitioners to defend
against failure in these cases depended directly and indirectly on a host of
blunt end factors rather than on the isolated “error” of human practitioners.
Fourth, the research methods described in reviewing the uncelebrated cases
demonstrate, in part, of how research that ultimately improves safety is
done. The combination of methods chronicled in these cases may be
unfamiliar to many, but they represent the kinds of techniques that have
been developed to understand the role of human performance, human-
machine cooperation, and cooperative work in complex evolving situations.
Fifth, and perhaps most important, the research on the uncelebrated cases
points to areas where substantial progress can be made. Significantly, these
are not single, local fixes or “magic bullets.” Rather, the research reveals a
set of factors involved in failure and shows that there are multiple
directions for improvements that need to be coordinated in order to make
progress on safety.
Figure 3. The blunt end
of a complex system
controls the resources
and constraints that
confront the practitioner
at the sharp end.
Day One — Contrasting Cases
Modified from Woods, et al. 1994
The shift to laparoscopic cholecystectomy where surgeons use a small video
camera to indirectly observe the process of removing the gallbladder, has
been accompanied by an increase in bile duct injuries with significant
consequences for patients. Studies of the basis of surgical expertise at this
task revealed the need for new critical perceptual and cognitive skills, in
particular, a kind of judgment under uncertainty and risk when considering
to convert to an open procedure if the anatomy cannot be clearly visualized.
The research results identify opportunities to improve performance through
new perceptual aids, new techniques for training judgment under
uncertainty, and needed changes in organizational behavior.
Technological change sometimes brings new problems that demand
attention. The growth of laparoscopic cholecystectomy provides an
excellent example. This form of minimally invasive surgery to remove the
gallbladder has largely replaced the older, “open” cholecystectomy. The
laparoscopic procedure involves use of a small video camera to provide
a view of the gallbladder and surrounding structures as these are
manipulated with instruments that penetrate the abdominal wall. The
procedure involves a few small incisions rather than one large one and,
for this reason, allows faster recovery, shorter hospital stays, and less
pain than the older “open” technique.
The widespread adoption of laparoscopic cholecystectomy provided
obvious benefits to many, but it was accompanied by a significant increase
in incidence and severity of injury to the common bile duct (Way, 1992).
Injury to this structure, which carries bile from the liver to the intestine,
is a catastrophic accident that can lead to protracted hospitalization,
multiple surgeries, and even liver transplantation. Bile duct injuries are
not unique to laparoscopic cholecystectomy; they can occur even with the
open procedure. But decades of experience with open cholecystectomy
had reduced the rate of bile duct injury to a very low level.
The new rash of bile duct injuries associated with laparoscopic
cholecystectomy was troubling, especially because the benefits of
laparoscopic surgery were so compelling and the demand for this form of
cholecystectomy was intense (Way, 1992). It was also troubling because
of the injury increased. Those suffering bile duct injury during
laparoscopic cholecystectomy tended to have devastating injuries of the
sort that might lead eventually to liver transplantation. Furthermore, bile
duct injury was frequently compounded when the original surgeon
attempted a repair procedure. The repair was more likely to be successful
if it was carried out by a specialist with experience at biliary duct repair
(Stewart and Way, 1995).
Uncelebrated Case #1:
Bile duct injuries during
Day One — Contrasting Cases
See Dominguez,Flach,Lake,McKellar & Dunn (in press);Dominguez (1998);Way (1992);Stewart and Way (1995).
The increase in severity and frequency of injury was detected fairly early
during the expansion of laparoscopic cholecystectomy. Epidemiological
work suggested that surgeon inexperience played an important role;
surgeons less experienced with this technology had a higher rate of injury.
Clearly the remote viewing and manipulation of the tissues that goes along
with the laparoscopic technique altered the mix of optimal surgical skill in
ways that increased the risks for injury.
Experts with laparoscopic technique have pointed out that minimizing
the risk of bile duct injuries depends on identifying the bile duct anatomy
before cutting, clipping, or cauterizing any structure. However, bile duct
injuries occur only in the setting where the operating surgeon thinks that
the anatomy has been identified — no one cuts the common duct knowing
that it is the common duct!
Ideally, practitioners should take steps to definitively identify the anatomy
when the structures (ducts and arteries) can not be identified clearly. One
option is to convert the procedure from laparoscopic to open to permit
direct handling of the tissues and a direct binocular view of the anatomy,
but this decision sacrifices the advantages of the laparoscopic procedure.
The decision to convert is a new judgment under uncertainty and risk.
The research has explored the factors that affect the difficulty of making
this judgment and what constitutes expertise at this judgment.
Dominguez and colleagues investigated the nature of surgical expertise
during laparoscopic cholecystectomy, in particular the judgment to convert
to an open procedure.
To study this judgment they had to create conditions where visualizing
the anatomy is challenging. A challenging case is needed to observe how
surgeons evaluate whether to continue laparoscopically or to convert to an
open procedure. Surgeons do not confront this decision at a single, well-
defined moment. Rather the issue emerges over time as the physician
explores the situation and confronts difficulties. Thus, Dominguez et al.,
used a complicated case that included a number of difficulties that
interacted and fed upon each other.
Because laparoscopic surgery is done using video displays of the surgical
field, they used a videotape of a difficult procedure to present the case to
20 surgeons and surgical residents. For this type of surgery, the videotape
record contains precisely the same visual information that was available to
the surgeon who actually did the operation, presented in precisely the
As each surgeon viewed the video of the surgical field as the case
progressed, they commented on the nature of the case, the probable future
Day One — Contrasting Cases
course and, specifically, the comfort level they were experiencing with
continuing the case laparoscopically, as opposed to converting to an open
procedure. The investigators also stopped the video at specified points to
ask the surgeon questions on his or her assessment of the situation.
The study, like any other exploration of people encountering and coping
with real problems, produced a data set that was challenging to analyze.
The basic results are the step by step assessments of each participating
surgeon as the procedure evolved. These are built up from the comments
of the participants as they viewed the videotape, linked to the
characteristics and difficulties of the case as it unfolds moment by
moment. This kind of data analysis, called protocol analysis, examines
the process by which someone solves a problem. It is and has been the
basic technique used to study problem solving. Dominguez et al.’s protocol
analysis was made richer by including data from a variety of practitioners
with varying degrees of experience.
A variety of results emerged from analysis of the surgeons’ commentaries
on the videotaped cases. Basically, it reveals that the conversion decision
is a difficult tradeof
f judgment. The data show some of the visual cues
that trigger consideration of whether to convert to an open procedure.
The results provide insights about how laparoscopic visualization is
limited when compared to direct binocular vision and handling of tissues.
The results also provide some insight into the circumstances in which
people may make the tradeoff inappropriately, for example, by continuing
the procedure laparoscopically even in the face of increasing uncertainty.
Significantly, the research goes beyond merely identifing visualization as a
key factor. It does much to define what needs to be enhanced, where the
critical visual cues reside, and how the cooperative work of the surgical
team is organized around visualization. These kinds of results are
important because they suggest different interventions that can improve
performance. Information about difficulties in visualizing the anatomy,
combined with knowledge of human perception, suggests that per
aids to enhance surgeons’ ability to visualize the anatomy through a
two-dimensional video view of the surgical field would be valuable.
The method used by Dominguez et al. also provides insight into how
for surgeons should be modified to prepare them for the new
judgments that new technology demands. By confronting videos of cases
specifically chosen to display the variety of factors that play into the
decision to convert to an open procedure, surgeons can expand their
expertise. This technique, sometimes called exploratory learning, is now
being used with simulation technology to train high-performance skills
(e.g., Feltovich, Spiro and Coulson, 1989; Howard, Gaba, Fish, Yang, and
Day One — Contrasting Cases
While Dominguez’s study is closely focused on perceptual and cognitive
factors, the results have much broader implications. When patients,
referring physicians, administrators, and colleagues discover that a case
has been converted from laparoscopic to open, their response influences
future surgical decisions. This is a specific example of the way reactions
of larger organizational and professional groups to practitioner decisions
in specific cases has a strong influence on the way people make
judgements in the face of uncertainty and risk. Or
to cases are an important part of the practitioners’ world and encourage
them to adjust their approach to risk.
Indeed, this organizational response becomes one point of certainty in a
world where future outcomes are inherently uncertain. The core issues of
bile duct injury in laparoscopic surgery are mainly how individuals and
groups cope with uncertainty. While they did not study these factors
directly, Dominguez et al.’s results show that it is impossible to formulate
narrow, rule-based approaches to the problem of bile duct injury in
laparoscopic surgery. They show that injuries arise from the same sources
that produce the (usual) success of this method.
Finally, the technological change represented by laparoscopic techniques
raises new questions about skill that have organizational and professional
implications. As a new generation of surgeons emerges, will they have
experience only with laparoscopic techniques? Will they be reluctant to
convert even in cases where uncertainty is high? The skill mix changes
as technology changes. This has profound implications for training,
especially for more difficult or complex situations. These are the same
issues raised by Way in his editorial. They are especially important in
an environment where there are substantial pressures to reduce training
time and costs, to reduce the skills required of practitioners, and to
Dominguez et al. provide a model for exploration of these issues that can
be extended and reused. Their research is not simply a study but also the
model for a host of studies that can explore the complexity and
uncertainty of surgical decision making, expertise, and injury.
Implications of the Research
This uncelebrated but researched case is interesting not simply as a
specific area in the landscape of patient safety, but also as a model that
illuminates broad generic issues.
This is an excellent example of the way periods of significant or rapid
technological change create demands for new skills and judgments. These
demands can contribute to new kinds of failures with new consequences
for failure. In the case of laparoscopic cholecystectomy, there is a path
toward failure that did not exist before the new technology (i.e., failing to
Day One — Contrasting Cases
convert to an open procedure when uncertainty is high). The
consequences of failure are changed, too: bile duct injuries, when they
occur, are more likely to be severe. This same pattern of new technology,
leading to new demands, leading to new forms of failure with altered
consequences, has also been predicted for infusion-based total intravenous
anesthesia (Cook and Woods, 1996).
The case of bile duct injury during laparoscopic cholecystectomy also
shows the importance of pursuing the second story that lies behind the
first, superficial story of isolated practitioner failure as the source of
accidents. This deeper look identifies a set
of factors that combine to
produce both success and failure. Perceptual, cognitive, and
organizational factors all play roles in this case. Reducing the rate of
failure involves improving the system which depends on a coordinated
approach that develops and evaluates (1) perceptual aids, (2) exploratory
learning techniques to enhance high performance skills and expertise, and
(3) changes to organizational behavior. This requires investments of time,
energy and financial resources.
Grappling with an area like laparoscopic cholecystectomy means
developing an understanding of how practitioners handle uncertainty, risk,
and hazard. In this, researchers are confounded by hindsight bias.
Uncertainty exists only so long as the outcome is undetermined.
Hindsight bias tends to make it hard for us to appreciate the uncertainty
practitioners confront. It is easy, when there has been no bile duct injury,
to see the decision to convert to open cholecystectomy as too conservative,
as sacrificing important goals when no such sacrifice was necessary. In
hindsight, we readily identify practitioners as risk-averse or risk-seeking.
But in actuality, risk is an inherent part of their world, a fluid and
changing characteristic that can be difficult to localize and is impossible
to quantify. Given the very high consequences of bile duct injury,
handling the conversion tradeoff well means that sometimes surgeons will
convert even though hindsight will reveal it was probably unnecessary.
Some patients will be harmed (suffer the undesirable effects of an open
cholecystectomy) so that others may benefit (avoid bile duct injury).
Although Dominguez et al. began with a relatively narrow study of
perception and visualization in laparoscopic cholecystectomy, their results
provoke consideration of much larger issues, making a rich network of
connections with other research results.
The Dominguez et al. study illustrates how one can proceed to enhance
safety in other areas of health care. First, they looked at the sources of
success and failure. They began by studying what makes problems
more or less difficult. This helped them identify the human performance
issues relevant to expertise (e.g., perceptual factors and judgment under
uncertainty and risk). Significantly, they recognized that practitioner
performance depended on the larger organizational context.
Day One — Contrasting Cases
Getting the results depended on tracing the process of how practitioners
handle different kinds of situations. Getting this story, in the form of a
problem-solving protocol, is necessary in order to learn about human
contributions to risk and safety. Researchers then can look for and
tabulate patterns across these problem-solving protocols.
methods are used, investigators begin to escape from hindsight bias to find
the set of multiple interacting factors that contribute to accidents.
Smith and colleagues studied the factors that contribute to antibody
misidentification. The studies of expertise led to the development and
testing of new systems to aid lab technician performance on this task and
to support improved training. Tests of the new system have shown
substantial decreases in antibody misidentification.
There are a number of antigens that may be present on red blood cells.
These can cause a transfusion reaction if a patient sensitive to these
antigens receives blood that contains them. To avoid these reactions, lab
technicians check to see which antibodies are present in a patient’s blood
prior to transfusion.
Blood screening checks for the presence of a variety of antibodies in the
patient’s blood using the results of a battery of tests performed in parallel.
Taken together, the results of these tests indicate the types of antibodies
present. The results are presented in a table that relates reactions to
hypotheses about what antibodies may be present. The technicians
evaluate the pattern of reactions and make inferences about which
antibodies are present. Knowing which antibodies are present allows
them to select blood units without corresponding antigens for transfusion.
A crossmatch is then performed using the selected units of blood and the
patient’s own serum in order to verify the compatibility.
The research project was undertaken to develop improved means to train
technicians for this task. In particular, the goal was to use new technology
(e.g., artificial intelligence) and techniques (e.g., exploratory learning) to
develop computerized tutor and learning aids.
The project was not driven by reactions to visible or celebrated failures,
i.e., transfusion reactions leading to severe patient consequences. Instead,
the motivation was a desire to demonstrate the use of new information
Uncelebrated Case #2:
Day One — Contrasting Cases
In problem-solving research,the term “protocol” traditionally refers to a description of the process by which a
problem is detected,framed, investigated and resolved. Medicine uses “protocol” to refer to a procedure or guide
See Obradovich,Smith,Guerlain, Rudmann, Strohm,Smith, Svirbely,& Sachs (1996) and Guerlain, Smith,
Obradovich,Rudmann,Strohm,Smith,& Svirbely (1996).
technology and to assist the training of new technicians. The research
team began with studies designed to examine the ways that experts
perform the task and to explore the contrast between strategies used by
experts and the behaviors of students and less experienced practitioners.
Multiple research methods were used, all focusing on (1) identifying
what makes problems difficult and then (2) using difficult problems
to understand what characterizes successful and poor problem-solving
strategies. The methods used included critical incident analysis, knowledge
elicitation based on walkthroughs of cases, observation of practitioners
solving real problems in actual facilities, and observation of practitioners
solving simulated problems using a high fidelity computerized test bed for
exploring new approaches for support and training.
The research showed that failure occurs even with easy tasks because the
tools people use create vulnerabilities. Antibody misidentification can arise
from “slips” traced to characteristics of the paper tools used for record
keeping. Given the identical rows and columns of the current paper
format (Figure 4), it is relatively easy to start reading across a row and
shift up or down so that the wrong row is scanned. This leads to a
misinterpretation of the pattern of reactions. This link between the design
of the paper forms and a form of failure suggests some straightforward
interventions to improve performance. Thus the research points to some
of the “low hanging fruit” that safety advocates believe should be
exploited quickly to improve safety. It is worth noting, however, that
being able to see this sort of opportunity is easy in hindsight, after the
research is done—it was not recognized as sigificant before.
Figure 4. A stage in an
problem using an
version of the original
paper form with
Day One — Contrasting Cases
Some cases of antibody indentification are difficult because they contain
factors such as noisy data, weakly reacting antibodies, or multiple
interacting antibodies that mask each other. Cases with these attributes
often proved very difficult for both students and practicing lab
technicians, and they frequently went “down the garden path.”
Misidentifications were surprisingly frequent for some cases with these
characteristics with rates approaching 50% among practicing lab
Other problems are difficult to solve because they challenge the fund of
knowledge that lab technicians possess. As in other areas studied
(Feltovich, Ford and Hoffman, 1997), practitioners sometimes possess
particular misconceptions that lead to poor performance on certain kinds
of problems. For example, technicians sometimes had a misconception
regarding the effects of pre-warming on reactions.
As these studies examined expert strategies, it quickly became apparent
that more experienced practitioners had developed strategies that were
sensitive to possibility of misidentification. Some were generic strategies
that helped avoid traps or recover from a tentative misidentification.
Others were tailored to help avoid specific vulnerabilities. Less expert
practitioners did not possess these strategies for detecting and recovering
from incipient misidentification.
Finding these kinds of results depended in part on knowing where to look.
Past research on human performance on diagnostic tasks suggested that
there would be classes of problems that offer subtle or infrequently
encountered patterns that are more likely to lead to misidentifications.
The investigators, as they learned more about which basic patterns were
embodied in the antibody identification task, were able to predict where
misidentifications would occur.
As the researchers began to understand what made certain kinds of
problems difficult and how expert strategies were tailored to these
demands, the researchers asked certain questions. What kinds of tools
could be used to assist lab technicians? What kinds of training could
improve their knowledge and strategies for difficult cases? What would
help a lab technician recognize that a particular case was likely to be
difficult? How could lab technicians decide when they needed help from
more experience personnel to solve the case they faced?
Following these explorations, the simulation of antibody identification
tasks became a test bed for exploring the impact of different strategies to
Day One — Contrasting Cases
A generic class of problems have been termed “garden path” in research on problem solving because the pattern
of initial evidence makes it easy for people to focus and become fixated on a plausible but erroneous diagnosis (see
Woods et al.,1994).
improve performance. Some of these involved relatively simple perceptual
and memory aids. For example, the electronic highlighting in Figure 4
helps the problem solver keep track of intermediate results. Other
strategies involved having the computer do basic clerical housekeeping
and tracking of tasks.
Since the research had uncovered expert strategies, especially ones that
guard against or help recover from possible misidentifications, the
designers developed a “critiquing” or advisory component in the computer
system. An example of the output of this critiquing component is shown
in the message in the lower window in Figure 4. In effect, the computer
would “tap them on the shoulder” and say, “wait a minute, perhaps you
should consider this before you go on: you just ruled out an antibody that
seems inappropriate or you just left this panel without making some
inferences that I (the computer) think are possible.”
The researchers went on to explore different ways to use this “intelligent”
capability. There are multiple ways to use this computer capability, and
they are not all equally effective in improving the overall performance on
the identification task. The overall performance of the human-computer
team was significantly better when the human solved the identification
problem and the computer provided a critique of the method used than
when the computer solved the problem and the human provided the
critique to ensure the computer had a correct solution. In both cases the
knowledge in the computer was the same; the dif
ference in performance
was a result of the roles assigned to the people and to the computer.
This conclusion is consistent with other studies, namely that team
performance is better when the computer plays the role of the critic.
The difference can be large, in some cases as much as 30% better. This
most probably is the result of a framing
effect. This refers to the way
that a suggestion from the computer can limit the variety of different
possibilities that the human operator explores. When the computer
suggests, practitioners tend to follow this proposed reasoning and agree
with the computer even when the quality of the initial assessment by the
computer is poor.
The timing and character of the computer critiques are also important
in determining the overall performance of the human-computer team. In
the end, the researchers were able to significantly reduce misidentification
rates. According to their study, students who finish their formal
curriculum and then spend 2 or 3 hours in this kind of learning
environment improve their performance on test cases by about 90%.
Day One — Contrasting Cases
Note that the cooperative system is larger than just the human-machine team. It can also include multiple
people, techniques to catch misidentifications, and certification processes,among other elements.
In a laboratory setting, with a critiquing system present, performance can
improve between 30% and 60%.
The research project is complete. A system is currently available as stand-
alone tutoring software for the cost of media. Several labs are using the
software on their own. However, there are no formal technology transfer
mechanisms in place, no active assessment programs to guide the transfer,
and no software maintenance or support available. All these components
necessary to translate research into improvements in safety are missing.
Implications of the Research
New technology is often proposed as the solution to a “human error”
problem. This project illustrates that, while technology may well be part
of system improvements, technology alone is not suf
ficient (Woods et al.,
1994, chapter 5). In this case, the critical information to decide how
to use technology skillfully came from:
● understanding what constitutes hard problems,
● understanding the ways in which the task of identification is vulnerable
to failure, and
● understanding the strategies experts use to guard against and recover
Note how the research results are not mere details of implementation or
user acceptance that can be dealt with after the basic concept for new
technology is implemented. The studies helped discover how to use
technological possibilities to aid performance. The result was a
cooperative concept that was quite different from the more autonomous
machine that, in the absence of good data on the nature of expertise and
failure, some expected to build.
The research strongly supports the use of decision-support tools to
improve human performance. It also provides a warning about the
limitations of automation as a replacement for human expertise. This case,
with many others, provides an explanation for the repeated failures of
efforts directed at replacing human expertise with machines. The results
show that autonomous computer problem solvers are brittle,
judgment can be adversely influenced by the computer’s behavior, and
Day One — Contrasting Cases
One part of the original research team was interested in expert performance in order to develop a machine that
could perform the task automatically. Interestingly, it turned out that cases that were hard for people were also
hard for an artificial intelligence software system. As a result, the project emphasized using technology to support
and cooperate with people.
Problem solvers are brittle when they have narrow scope of competence and are unable to cope with problems
that fall outside of that narrow scope. Research on autonomous machine problem solvers consistently finds that
such machines are brittle. People, on the other hand, can be effective at adapting plans to handle complicating
factors,surprising variations,and novel combinations. In other words, human and machine problem solvers are
vulnerable to different kinds of failure.
that a carefully constructed cooperative system that coordinates both
human and machine expertise performs better than either one alone.
The work demonstrates quite clearly that creating effective computer-
based decision aids is itself a complex task. It requires detailed knowledge
of the ways in which human expertise is deployed, how it achieves success,
and how it is vulnerable. There are few applications of computer aids
to decision making in medicine that have been developed with such an
understanding of the cognitive demands of practice in place. Ultimately,
improvement in the overall system performance depends on increasing
expertise, not replacing it. The design work revolved around developing
mechanisms to enhance
expertise. But expertise is already highly
refined in complex work domains. Improving on it requires detailed
understanding of the strengths and vulnerabilities of the current
knowledge and strategies.
The value of the research is not limited to the development of a specific
decision support tool. The knowledge necessary to produce the computer
system can be used in many other ways. Discovering the components of
expertise and making them explicit permit us to consider other ways
to deliver enhanced expertise where it is needed. For example, the
blood banking community uses case studies for testing expertise and
performance in hematology labs. The knowledge base about difficulties,
typical misconceptions, and expert strategies developed for the tutor
system also could be used to enhance this process.
Expertise is not simply individual skill and knowledge about the narrow
technical aspects of problems; it also refers to how an organization
develops, supports, deploys, and brings to bear this narrow technical
expertise in different kinds of situations.
In searching out the vulnerabilities in the current system for antibody
identification, the research demonstrates that success depends at least
as much on effective mechanisms for detection and recovery from
incipient failure as it does on the primary prevention of flaws. The
success of blood banking does not arise from the elimination of errors
in the antibody screening process. Rather it relies on the recognition of
cases that are special and prone to failure together with indications that
the identification process has gone awry. The system does not perform
flawlessly at each stage but rather manages to incorporate sufficiently
sophisticated detection of flaws so that the overt failure rate is very
low. One component of this is the expertise applied to screening;
there are others.
This critical role of detecting and recovering from incipient failure is a
fundamental finding of the new look at the human contribution to safety.
Day One — Contrasting Cases
This finding stands in stark contrast to the erroneous and overly simplistic
notion that people are erratic and unreliable components in an otherwise
During the workshop a question was posed: if misidentification rates are
so high for certain classes of problems (in cases with noisy data, weakly
reacting antibodies, masking, misidentification rates approach 50% in
data from practicing technologists), why aren’t there more overt failures
(transfusion reactions)? There are a number of reasons. The system is
relatively tolerant of misidentification. The antibody identification process
identifies only candidate blood units. Cross matching of the candidates
with the patient’s blood will detect many (but not all) incompatibilities.
Even when there are incompatibilities, transfusion of the wrong unit may
generate no significant problem, the problem may go unrecognized, or it
may be attributed to some other source. The situation is, like so many
others, complex. But an important consequence of the apparently low rate
of mismatching as a source of injury is that we may expect to find little
enthusiasm for expensive new programs to improve human or system
performance. Paradoxically, the typical success of the blood testing
system and the low-frequency of the sorts of complex identification
problems used as test cases in this research may lead many to discount
the value of such research.
Cook and colleagues studied how the characteristics of a particular
infusion device used in cardiac anesthesia contributed to a series of
operating room near misses. In this uncelebrated case, the story of how
the incidents were investigated and how different stakeholders reacted is
as revealing as the specific results.
The research began after an institution experienced an inadvertent
delivery of a vasoactive drug via a computerized infusion device during
cardiac anesthesia. Due to prompt physician intervention, the
misadministration had no lasting consequences for the patient.
The researchers, who were already engaged in a study of human
performance in anesthesia, began to investigate the incident in particular
and to study broader questions about physician-device interaction.
In the midst of these studies three more misadministrations occurred
(again with no lasting consequences).
These studies of device use in context and the incident investigations
showed that the device possessed classic deficiencies in human-computer
Uncelebrated Case #3:
infusion devices in the
Day One — Contrasting Cases
See Cook,Woods and Howie (1992), Moll van Charante et al. (1993),Yue,Woods,and Cook (1992).
interface (HCI) design.
These HCI deficiencies contributed to
misoperation and misassembly of the device. These HCI deficiencies
made it difficult for users to detect and recover from these and other
problems. These HCI deficiencies were one contributor to incidents of
misadministrations of vasoactive drugs. The results also led the research
team to design an alternative device interface and displays to illustrate
how to correct these kinds of HCI deficiencies in this class of infusion
devices. The study has implications for incident reporting, for device
design, and for the analysis of human performance in technical
Infusion devices are ubiquitous in medicine, as are problems related
to their use. The incidents with this infusion device occurred during
anesthesia for cardiac surgery. Drugs with rapid onset and short duration
of action have the advantage of permitting quick adjustment (titration) to
achieve desired effects. In cardiac surgery there are predictable periods
where patients may require the infusion of these fast-acting/short-lasting
drugs to increase cardiac contractility, change blood pressure, or alter
heart rate. Various mechanical devices are used to administer these
infusions. The advent of microprocessor-based, battery-powered infusion
devices opened the way to more precise control of these infusions than was
possible with older, purely mechanical devices. But this increased precision
has been achieved at the cost of increasing the complexity of the drug
delivery process and the creation of new forms of failure.
Table 2 presents the sequence of events that followed the first case of
inadvertent drug delivery.
The researchers were engaged in a study of human performance in
anesthesia. The first incident was reported informally to one of the
investigators shortly after it occurred. The initial descriptions were vague,
but the event involved free flow of a vasoactive drug through an infusion
device. Free flow is a runaway condition where the fluid containing the
drug is delivered to the patient as a continuous, unlimited flow rather
than as a controlled incremental delivery over time. In this instance, the
fluid contained a drug that lowered blood pressure. Other drugs were
given to counteract the effect, but the free-flow event was not discovered
At the time, the failure was attributed to human operator error. This was
the view of the manufacturer and also of the senior practitioners. For
Day One — Contrasting Cases
These deficiencies in human-computer cooperation are called classic because they have been identified as
contributors to erroneous actions and assessments in many different settings. Because they are common design
errors in computerized devices, they are used as cautionary tales when teaching HCI.
Investigating incidents related
● case protocols collected prospectively based on cases
to human performance presented at the internal morbidity and mortality
in anesthesia conference
● informal notification of an OR incident involving infusion
device (no patient consequences)
● interviews with participants within hours of incident to
● bench testing of device behavior to corroborate sequence
of events and to identify underlying contributors
● results identified classic deficiencies in practitioner-
Reactions to incident by
● human error— “can’t make devices idiotproof”
● coping strategies—“yeah,there are some device
management: weaknesses,but I can handle it”
● untrustworthy device—“you have to be careful, it
can burn you”
● exactly one week later a second incident occurs: another
● device captured in “impossible” state
● interviews with participants immediately following incident
to reconstruct case
● investigation identifies central role of breakdowns in
● other methods employed to understand device use and
breakdowns in context: observations of device use in
context;more testing of device behavior
● unable to get any useful data on other incidents involving
this device or similar devices from incident reporting systems
Reactions by stakeholders:
● cryptic incident report by device manufacturer refers to
“custom” setup, states device worked as designed, implies
erratic human behavior was responsible
● device manufacturer reaction focused on,is there a patient
injury? Will we be sued?
● Practitioners now see device interface as the source of
incidents and difficulties;they report more cases
● two more incidents are reported and investigated “fresh”
● report of the results of all of the investigations and studies
documents the problems in practitioner-computer
cooperation and how they contributed to incidents
(Moll van Charante et al.,1993)
● results lead to predictions of other problems;later, incidents
occur where these problems are one contributor to the
sequence of events (e.g.,an event during transport to ICU)
● researchers begin a follow-up project to redesign the
device interface;the goal of the redesign is to show how to
correct deficiencies in practitioner-computer cooperation
(a) with this device,(b) with this class of devices and,
(c) in general (Yue,Woods and Cook,1992)
● investigators report incidents and results in specialty
journal (Cook,Woods and Howie,1992);give talks to
research-oriented and technology-oriented
● use of device is reduced
● leads to studies of different classes of infusion devices used
in other contexts (Obradovich and Woods,1996)
Table 2. The sequence of
events in the investigation
of four operating room
an infusion device
Day One — Contrasting Cases
some, the event was regarded as an example of human fraility, or at least
the limited ability of humans to operate modern equipment (e.g., “you
can’t make devices completely idiotproof”). Many practitioners thought
that the device had some quirks in operation and that it was potentially
troublesome. Some had developed local adaptations to help them forestall
problems with the device in use.
In general, other practitioners felt that
this kind of thing could not happen to them because of their skill,
attention to detail, and vigilance. In addition, the event was regarded
as an anomaly with only local implications, unrelated to other events.
To the researchers, however, the incident had the flavor of a human-
computer interaction breakdown. They were familiar with problems
in human-computer cooperation and also with investigating human
performance in incidents and were already active in this setting in a
related study. As a result, they decided to investigate the incident and
the device more closely.
The researchers used multiple methods to reconstruct the sequence of
events and to explore what factors contributed to the incident. They
explored how the device behaved under different circumstances, e.g., how
the alarms and displays behaved when flow was obstructed or excessive.
They began observing how people used the devices in the context of
cardiac surgery. They linked aspects of cardiac anesthesia to device
characteristics and the user interface—for example, the need to use
multiple devices in parallel in this setting. The data were used to
construct a protocol of the incident that consisted of what cues the
anesthesia team noticed about the patient’s physiology, their interpretation
of the situation, and their interventions. In particular, the protocol traced
the interaction with the set of infusion devices during the case.
The basic sequence of events was as follows. The anesthetist observed
increasing blood pressure and attempted to counteract the change by
starting one of the infusion devices that had been set up earlier to be
ready to deliver medication to lower the blood pressure. The device
emitted an audible alarm and posted a message on its screen indicating
that no flow had occurred. An anesthesiologist scanned the assembly and
noted that all of the stop cocks were closed downstream of the infusion
devices, blocking flow to the patient. The anesthesiologist then opened all
Day One — Contrasting Cases
In one case, a practitioner was observed setting up the devices.Setup was completed at the beginning of the
day, well before bringing the patient into the room.After assembling the devices and drugs the practitioner started
all the devices at a high flow rate setting,allowing the fluid they controlled to flow into a garbage pail. Once the
devices had been running for several minutes without generating any alarms,the practitioner changed the settings
to low rates and shut the devices off.This pretest of the assembled system of devices is a good example of local
of these valves. By this point in time blood pressure had fallen. Because
the infusion was no longer needed, the anesthesiologist did not restart the
device (in the anesthesiologist’s mind the infusion had never started).
The blood pressure began to fall and reached an unacceptably low level.
The anesthesiologist responded appropriately by injecting other drugs
to counteract the drop. However, the disturbance to blood pressure
continued, and the anesthesiologist continued to act to keep blood pressure
under control. When the anesthesia team scanned the array of infusion
devices, the displays indicated that the one they originally attempted to
use was not running. Even so, they pressed the
OFF button on the device
to turn off the power. Only later, as they began to prepare another drug
infusion to counter the low blood pressure, did they notice that the
previously full bag of drug for lowering blood pressure was now empty.
Although they did not realize it at the time, the anesthesiologists had
misassembled the device in a way that allowed free flow. The closed stop-
cock in series prevented the immediate free-flow condition in the infusion
device. When the anesthesiologist opened these valves, free flow began,
drug reached the patient, and the blood pressure began to fall. Once the
unintended drug delivery began, the device provided no feedback to
indicate flow of any kind to the users. The display and alarms indicated
there was no flow and that there had been no flow. The device’s sensor
obscured the user’s view of the drip chamber. The bag of fluid that
contained the drug was inside a veil of aluminum foil to prevent it from
reacting with light, thus obscuring the user’s view. Furthermore, the off
button only powered down the device; it did not block flow. Figure 5
contains the final version of the protocol describing the incident.
The studies of user-device interaction in context showed how multiple
factors could come together to produce this incident. Some of the factors
were traps created by the device interface and displays. For example,
because several of these devices were used together in a device array and
the setup for each individual device was complex, there were several steps
that might be omitted or incorrectly performed which could produce a
path toward failure. Misassemblies were observed to occur during normal
use, but they did not produce inadvertent drug deliveries because other
necessary conditions were not present. The observations showed that
users were sensitive to the possibilities for misassembly and misoperation
and devised strategies they thought would help to avoid these or to
prevent inadvertent drug flow the patient. In the context of cardiac
anesthesia, a misassembly (i.e., a flaw in setting up the device) could
occur much earlier than the effects of the failure (i.e., the moment that
drug began to flow freely).
Day One — Contrasting Cases
If an unintended drug delivery began, there were other characteristics
of the device that made it difficult for operators to detect that something
had gone wrong with one device in the array and to correct the failure.
Basically, the device provides weak feedback about its activities. Under
the right circumstances the device’s alarms and displays can give the
impression that there is no flow when in fact there is flow or the
impression that flow is precisely as desired when in fact it is different.
Up to this point the failure was regarded as a operator error, or perhaps
a training problem, but only of passing significance. One week later,
however, another near miss occurred involving this kind of infusion
device, with one of the senior practitioners using the device. The
anesthesiologists recognized that the surprising cardiovascular behavior
resulted from the behavior of the device. The device was in a state that
all thought was impossible—the device was delivering drug even though
it appeared to be “off” as evidenced by a completely blank screen. The
research team was called, and they removed the device to a place where
it could be studied, thus capturing the device in its failed mode.
With a video recorder running and the manufacturer’s representative
present, the investigators determined the specific contributors that created
the impossible state. This was done by varying the setup and operation
of another of these infusion devices until its behavior matched the
“impossible” behavior of the operating room (OR) device. The results
from the previous investigations of device use in context and device
behavior were important contributors to this process.
At this stage, the research project began in earnest with detailed, formal
field studies observing the user setting up, testing, and using the devices.
To verify how the device actually behaved and how it appeared to behave
under different normal and abnormal conditions, the researchers tested
the device in an engineering laboratory under a variety of conditions.
The user interaction sequence was worked out for various tasks to reveal
various HCI problems (e.g., ambiguous alarms and multiple hidden modes
of operation). These results made the problems with the device in clinical
settings comprehensible. They also made it possible to see which aspects
of the user-device interface created opportunities for problems in the
context of cardiac anesthesia.
In the research the investigators were unable to get any useful data about
other incidents involving this device or similar devices from incident
reporting systems. The device manufacturer provided a brief, cryptic
incident report to the FDA device incident reporting system which referred
to a “custom” setup, stated that the device worked as designed, and
implied erratic human behavior was responsible. But practitioners
Day One — Contrasting Cases
Figure 5. Protocol
anesthesiologists and an
infusion device during an
operating room incident.
Day One — Contrasting Cases
Copyright © 1994 by Richard I.Cook, MD
now saw the device itself as the source of difficulties or surprises they
experienced, and they began to report more incidents involving the device.
During the research projects, two more incidents related to the device
occurred and were investigated. Several new reports of difficulty with
the device were also received during this period. Some of these helped
to confirm findings about difficulties with the device-user interface.
The research team also began a follow-up project to redesign the device
interface (Yue, Woods and Cook, 1992). The goal of the redesign was to
show how to correct deficiencies in practitioner-computer cooperation (a)
with this device, (b) with this class of devices and, (c) in general. The
design project used the results on the HCI problems to create a redesign
based on user-centered automation principles. Particular attention was
● making the device display its actual and intended functions in a way
that allowed users to see whether the actual performance of the device
matched the intended one;
● supporting the user’s need to attend to other tasks and interact with the
device only at intervals by making the device show its behavior over time;
● making it possible to switch smoothly between automated and manual
methods of control, so that situations where using the automated system
would lead to instability (like transporting patients connected to the
device from one location to the other) could be handled by taking manual
● providing a direct, positive, visible control that stopped flow through the
● incorporating specific features to reduce the difficulties associated with
using multiple devices simultaneously, including a support tree that made
it possible to align infusion devices and their source bags of fluids and a
slender package that permitted side-by-side arrangement of devices.
Broadly speaking, these features were all directed towards making the
operations of the device apparent to the operator or, in the jargon of HCI,
The results of the studies led to predictions of other problems one might
expect. For example, the results alert us to the potential for certain kinds
of problems and incidents in total intravenous anesthesia, which requires
the use of arrays of automated infusion devices. These potential problems
could be avoided largely through improved interface design. In another
example, the studies showed that during transport from the OR to the ICU
actual device performance was irregular in a way that was unpredictable
Day One — Contrasting Cases
and invisible to the user.
Later, the investigators were present for
discussion of a case in a morbidity and mortality conference involving
a patient whom became unstable while being transported from the
operating room to the intensive care unit. One of these infusion devices
was being used to support the patient’s cardiovascular system. While it
was impossible to reconstruct the device’s behavior during this period
and to determine its contribution to the incident, the researchers were
able to alert the physicians that the device could behave erratically and
unpredictably under these sorts of circumstances.
The investigators reported the incidents and results of their investigations
in a specialty journal and through presentations to research-oriented and
technology-oriented anesthesiologist groups. A report was prepared that
describes the results of all of the investigations, documents the problems
in practitioner-computer cooperation, and traces how they contributed to
incidents (Moll van Charante et al., Cook, Woods, Yue and Howie, 1993).
Overall, the research on the device lasted nearly nine months. It was not
funded; the participants donated the time for the project.
The work also
led to other studies of different classes of infusion devices used in other
contexts (e.g., Obradovich and Woods, 1996).
Implications of the Research
One interesting feature of the research is that the deficiencies of the device
design are subtle and became apparent only under the conditions of use.
Problems occur when aspects of the context of use combine with features
of the device and device interface to create problems for the user. The
testing that uncovered specific problems with the device-user interface
was directed by the field studies that in turn were prompted by close
examination of incidents. The device did not possess a hidden “Achilles’
heel” defect but rather possessed a group of properties that influenced
human performance. These factors were significant with respect to
outcome only under specific circumstances.
It is important to note that the incidents were regarded as operator error
until the investigation was well underway. A variety of factors tended to
make it unlikely people would discover the specific problems with the
device in this context of use: a) the complexity of the larger system in
which the device was used; b) the hidden complexity of the device itself;
and c) the general experience of practitioners that computerized devices
are quirky, difficult, or unpredictable.
Day One — Contrasting Cases
13 The device monitored its own function by counting fluid drops forming in a drip chamber,but lateral
acceleration could move these drops out of the detector’s path;this could lead to a variety of responses (e.g.,
automatically blocking flow and then trying to resume flow at the target setpoint) depending on precisely how and
when the detection failed along with other factors.
14 Moll van Charante was a visiting medical student from The Netherlands,Yue was a graduate student in the
Industrial Design program focusing on human-computer interaction at The Ohio State University.
These factors made human performance rather than device characteristics
the center of attention after the fact. Indeed, the reports regarding
incidents with this device that were filed with the government incident
tracking system emphasized simple “operator error” and implied each was
unique (e.g., “user reports problem; cannot duplicate problem”). None
of the reports provided a narrative of the incident with enough detail for
researchers to go back and look for similarities or contrasts with new
cases. None of the reports indicated any in-depth investigation of the
factors that led to the incident.
Only when these actual incidents were carefully explored, applying
specialized knowledge and techniques related to the factors that affect
human performance, were investigators able to reveal a second story
hidden behind the label of “operator error.”
Another important feature of the research is the use of multiple methods
to understand the different factors at work. Each new finding based on
a particular method raised questions that required a shift to a different
method. This is natural, considering the complexity of the underlying
features of the domain. The ability to make progress depended on being
able to bring together disparate methods to create a web of information
that was mutually reinforcing. The incidents themselves pointed to
features of the device. The HCI analysis of the device suggested particular
problems with the interface. The studies of the behavior of the interface
showed how the device would appear opaque under conditions like those
occurring in the incidents. The redesign showed how this opacity was a
function of cognitive tasks and how it might be avoided without changing
the underlying mechanical functions of the device. The contrasts and
connections between these various approaches provided the insight.
Finally, the research is significant because it was so fortuitous and
unplanned. It points out the value of long term associations between
researchers and practitioners. In particular, the ability to recognize fruitful
areas for investigation depends on being intimately involved with
practitioners. The research perspective allows one to see beyond the
practitioners’ own characterizations of the difficulties they face and to
follow deeper, more subtle, but ultimately more rewarding lines of inquiry.
Contrasting Uncelebrated and Celebrated Cases
Taken together, the laparoscopic cholecystectomy, blood antibody
identification, and infusion device cases demonstrate the kinds of insights
that come from exploring the second story that lies behind the incidents
that provoke attention. In each case, the work is painstaking and
Day One — Contrasting Cases
detailed, going far beyond the sorts of investigations that followed the
celebrated cases. In each case the story is complex, difficult for
outsiders to understand, and not easily reduced to a simple summary.
Significantly, the research methods used are unfamiliar to many.
Finally, the motivation for the work was less the desire to directly
generate safety improvements than to understand the nature of the
real processes that underlie success and failure in the real world.
The potential for such work to produce sustained increases in safety
is substantial. In particular, in each case the research offers the
possibility of further progress by identifying areas ripe for
Day One — Contrasting Cases
he issues surrounding incident reporting systems were the focus of
discussions that began the second day of the workshop. The history
of systematic incident reporting and analysis in medicine is a rich
one, extending back at least to the targeted efforts of Cooper et al. (1978)
to generate and analyze patterns in a corpus of cases in anesthesiology.
Today, there are a number of such systems in place in health care and a
variety proposed or in development.
The interest in incident systems is spurred by several different beliefs:
1) the belief that there exist a variety of patterns in the character and
occurrence of incidents that go unnoticed because there are no larger,
continuously replenished, systematically generated collections of data;
2) the belief that the analysis of these patterns can be used to direct
attention to the areas most rewarding for study and amenable to
3) the belief that the present pace and character of technological,
organizational, and economic change in health care is shifting the
pattern of incidents; and
4) the belief that the absence of data defining these patterns will prove
to be the critical, limiting factor in improving safety.
Closely linked to these beliefs are experiences with existing incident
reporting systems. While there is no real method for measuring the
performance of existing systems,
the view is widespread that less than
5% and perhaps less than 1% of incidents that might fit the criteria for
reporting are actually reported. The existing systems are mainly
mandatory, and many are linked either directly or indirectly to
enforcement and sanction mechanisms.
Day Two – Incident
Reporting and Analysis
The reason for this is that knowing the rate of reporting requires knowing the denominators for numbers of
events; that is, knowing precisely what it is that the incident reporting system is supposed to be discovering.
Many leaders in health care feel that new approaches to incident reporting
are required. However, most incident reporting discussions revolve around
how to achieve greater compliance
with reporting requirements. Proposals
for anonymous systems, confidential systems, immunized systems, or
mandatory systems are framed primarily by concerns for gaining more
(greater numbers, more detailed) reports.
The discussion during the workshop explored incident reporting in health
care from different perspectives. The stimulus for the discussion was
several short presentations on lessons learned about incident reporting and
incident analysis from other industries. The presentations generated a
discussion that focused more on how the analysis of reports is complicated,
difficult, and sometimes controversial. The discussion was wide-ranging
and complicated. Topics included:
● building consensus among stakeholder groups,
● analysis of incidents with respect to factors influencing human
● complexities and limits in the attribution of “cause,”
● linkages between incidents and accidents, particularly in health care,
● difficulties in using incident data to improve safety.
The session opened with a short talk by Charles Billings, MD, Chief
Scientist (retired), NASA Ames, on the lessons learned from incident
reporting in aviation. Dr. Billings designed, started and managed the
Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) 22 years ago when he was
at NASA’s Ames Research Center.
The ASRS is a confidential reporting system for incidents and not
accidents. It is often proposed as a model for incident reporting in health
care. Dr. Billings described the history of that system and the conditions
that now appear to have been critical for its success (interest in the
aviation experience is widespread in medicine; as a result, Appendix B
contains an edited transcript of Billing’s presentation.)
The ASRS is operated by NASA and largely funded by the Federal
Aviation Administration (FAA). It is a successful system that was
developed in part because of the failure of a predecessor system run from
within the FAA. Because the FAA is a regulatory and enforcement body,
reports to that system were limited. The ASRS was developed as an
system, run entirely outside the FAA, and was, from the
outset, designed to be entirely confidential
. Reports made to ASRS include
an identification strip that provides analysts the means to contact the
Lessons from the
Day Two — Incident Reporting and Analysis
In aviation, there is a reasonably clear demarcation between categories labelled as “incidents” and “accidents.”
“Accidents” is used to refer to cases where passengers are injured or where there is overt damage to the aircraft.
The term “incidents” refers to cases that violated some aspect of good practice or rules but did not lead to injuries.
Despite these working definitions in aviation and other fields, the links between good practice and outcome are
complex. In medicine the links between good practice and outcome are even more difficult to untangle.
reporter. This strip, and anything that would uniquely identify any
individual, is removed during the analysis. The nar
rative description of the
incident is retained as are a host of indexing keys. Incidents are collected
and reported to the aviation community as individual episodes and as
exemplars of larger problems. The larger database of incidents is available
for research. Each year there are on the order of 30,000 incidents reported.
The system costs several million dollars per year to run.
A consensus among stakeholders
that such a system is needed was
essential to the continued success of the ASRS. Producing this consensus
was a substantial effort in itself. Some portion of the success of the ASRS
was derived simply from creating the consensus. The effort needed to
acquire agreement among the stakeholders created an environment that
nurtured the system and protected it from political tampering when its
output was controversial. But creating the consensus also generated a
widespread (but not universal) view of safety that insisted that
practitioners (pilots, air traffic controllers, mechanics, flight attendants,
etc.) were the observers most likely to recognize hazards and incidents and
were also vital in preventing bad outcomes. The goal of collecting the
details surrounding “accidents that might have happened” is to identify
previously unknown hazards and to see new emerging threats as systems
and organizations change. The system generates this type of information
by performing analyses of sets of nar
ratives as questions about threats to
safety emerge. It does not generate large statistical measures of systemic
performance—a fact that was stressed repeatedly.
The analysis of incidents reported to the ASRS depends on a cadr
analysts with multiple skills. These individuals are domain experts (e.g.,
pilots) rather than technicians or clerks. The point was made several times
that the analysis of the reports requires at least as much expertise as
is involved in their generation. Researchers can also make use of the
database by working with the staff of analysts to put together subsets
of narratives that address a particular theme or question. The analysis
also depends on the ability to contact reporters to clarify details of the
incident. These activities depend on an effective indexing
scheme so that
analysts can put together related or contrasting sets of cases for analysis.
Note that, although the system uses substantial indexing, the primary
purpose of analysis is not to reduce the incident to a category but rather
to make sure that the narrative is descriptive, complete, and precise.
Because the ASRS is not fundamentally a statistical system, the substance
of the narratives is the critical information that the system provides.
A critical part of the activities of the staff at the ASRS is providing
feedback to the operational community—the people who voluntarily
provide the information. The staff uses several mechanisms such as the
Callback newsletter to provide highly visible, monthly feedback to the
community of the results of its analyses and studies of the data received.
Day Two — Incident Reporting and Analysis
The visibility of the information provided by individual reporters back
to the operational communities has proven to be an essential part of
system success, building support for the system and making safety a
The ASRS does not provide guidance about how to solve problems or about
which problems are economically or socially worth attention. It has no
regulatory function. It does not deal with accidents, which are reported
and analyzed separately through the independent National Transportation
Safety Board (NTSB). Studies using the ASRS data base have been
motivated by accidents and have proven helpful to the NTSB in
understanding the contributors to an accident it is investigating.
Reports to the ASRS for specific incidents provide limited immunity
against FAA enforcement action but only under specific circumstances.
This immunization of the reporter has itself been an incentive to report and
has led to a substantial continuing flow of reports. Technical developments
in the aviation system have allowed for automated detection of “altitude
busts” where an aircraft strays outside its assigned altitude. This has
created an incentive for pilots to report such incidents to the ASRS in
order to be able to claim immunity against later disciplinary action.
Viewed from one perspective, these reports are monotonous and repetitious.
They are, however, more informative than the automated detection system,
which simply records the event. The narrative descriptions can provide
information about how and why such “altitude busts” occur. Such
information has provided the basis for procedural modifications
designed to ameliorate the problem in several air carriers. Nevertheless,
it is clear that the incentive of immunity affects the number and kind of
There have been no breaches in the confidentiality of the ASRS system.
Narratives entering the database are “de-identified” in a process that
removes all the features of the report that might be used to identify the
event and people it describes. This process takes priority in handling
ASRS data. It provides effective immunity by transforming the data into a
form useless for civil sanctions. It is clear that the reputation of the ASRS
among practitioners is derived in large part from the record of success in
providing such functional anonymity.
The impact of the ASRS on safety is partly indirect. Simply by its
presence it has served as a potent indication to all the stakeholders
that safety is a critical concern, that new hazards will continue to appear,
and that there is a system-wide concern for safety that arches over all
organizational and institutional boundaries.
The above lessons are abstracted from the aviation experience. Both
in the presentation and the ensuing discussion, the workshop explored
important differences between health care and aviation. While a
Day Two — Incident Reporting and Analysis
successful system for aviation is not likely to transfer directly and literally
to health care, the lessons Dr. Billings has derived are generic, e.g., a non-
punitive approach, the importance of communication back to practitioners,
and the critical role of an independent organization. As such, these lessons
can serve as a guide to develop successful systems in health care.
Collections of incidents and accidents cry out for classification. The
apparent similarities and differences between the events, their outcomes,
and the circumstances that precede them encourage us to organize them
in categories and rank them in severity. But classification also has its own
hazards, especially in complex domains where there are multiple possible
paths to any outcome and multiple possible outcomes from any path.
Classification involves identifying relevant similarities and differences;
their effective use depends on being able to know a priori what relevant
means. Erik Hollnagel, an expert in the evaluation of human performance,
explained some of his experience with classification systems used in
industrial incident and accident work (see Hollnagel, 1993). His
examination of these sorts of systems revealed that an extensive effort
at a priori classification may yield very little insight into the underlying
features that incidents have in common.
In the discussion about incident reporting, it was pointed out that the
ASRS uses an extensive indexing system, but this is used to collect related
subsets of narrative cases from the database that pertain to a theme or
question. The indexing system does not work automatically but is a tool
used by the staff to carryout analyses and to assist outside parties use the
database in their analyses. The indexing is used as a tool in analysis; the
classification system it represents is not the
Classification does involve a type of analysis but a type that greatly
constrains the insights that can be obtained from the data. Typically, when
classification systems are used as the analysis, a report of an incident is
assigned, through a procedure or set of criteria, into one or another fixed
category. The category set is thought to capture or exhaust all of the
relevant aspects of failures. Once the report is classified the narrative
is lost or downplayed. Instead, tabulations are built up and put into
statistical comparisons. Put simply, once assigned to a single category, one
event is precisely, and indistinguishably like all the others in that category.
Yet research on human performance in incidents and accidents emphasizes
the diversity of issues and interconnections (e.g., Woods et al., 1994).
As Billings emphasized in the discussion of the ASRS, capturing a rich
narrative of the sequence and factors involved in the case has proven
essential. Often, new knowledge or changing conditions leads investigators
to ask new questions of the database of narratives. The analyst often goes
back to the narrative level to look for new patterns or connections.
Day Two — Incident Reporting and Analysis
As an example, Hollnagel described an industrial incident reporting system
that in one sense seemed a success but in another sense failed. It was
successful in that people reported to the system, but it was a failure in
that these reports did not lead to significant learning about vulnerabilities
or to constructive changes. The central reason for this failure was the
removal of the interesting, informative aspects of the events that were
present in the narratives but lost in the process of classification.
Hollnagel traced the failure, in part, to the classification system’s failure to
distinguish between the phenomenal appearance of a failure event and the
underlying pattern of contributing factors that generated the event. To
use a medical metaphor that Hollnagel has employed, most classification
systems confuse phenotype
with genotype. The phenotype of an incident
is what happens, what people actually do or what they do wrong, what
you can observe. Phenotypes are specific to the local situation and
context—the surface appearance of the incident. On the other hand
the genotype of an incident is the characteristic collection of factors that
lead to the surface, phenotypical appearance of the event. Genotypes
refer to patterns of contributing factors. The significance of a genotype
is that it identifies deeper characteristics that many superficially different
phenotypes have in common.
Genotypical patterns are not observable directly. All statements about
them are inferences that represent models about the factors that drive
human performance rather than observations. It is simple to state the
difference between these but quite difficult to separate them in practice.
What reporting systems provide are phenotypes. What drives performance,
however, are genotypes. The processes of inference about the contributors
to events depend on a thorough understanding of the background or
context of the event. The uncelebrated, researched cases illustrate the
process of finding possible genotypical patterns. They also illustrate how
finding these patterns can help identify meaningful positive interventions
to enhance safety.
Incident collections do spur interest, in part because of the contrasts
and similarities between cases. But classification systems that rely on
phenotypical categories do not capture these characteristics very well.
Indeed, many at the workshop noted that “human error” is nearly always
an important category in classification systems for accidents, but assigning
a case to this category generally stops or limits the analysis of what factors
influenced human performance.
Classification systems that obscure, simplify, or discard the story of the
cases they classify have generally not been successful. The systems
themselves become outdated relatively quickly. More significantly,
the collections they represent generally lead to little real progress on
understanding the nature of success and failure in complex domains.
Even when motivation is high in management and there are high
Day Two — Incident Reporting and Analysis
consequences of failure, the process of classifying by phenotypes eliminates
the ability to see the second story of contributors to the system failures.
Classification systems limit the depth of the analysis that can be conducted,
and they limit what it is that one can learn from the collection of data.
This is especially a problem in complex environments where failures do not
occur because of single causes (Reason, 1990; 1997). The net result is that
classification systems tend to strip away the rich contextual information
from which inferences about genotypes may be made and thereby make
such collections sterile and uninformative.
Although their methodologies differ, virtually all the researchers present
at the workshop commented that their work depends on capturing the
process and the context that led up to the outcome. This “story” is the
fundamental data, and all analyses build up patterns, trends and contrasts
across these stories. From a research perspective the sparse, simplistic
stories of the celebrated cases were not so much wrong as they were
uninformative; the researchers did not see a way to make progress based
on those kinds of data. Rather, it was the richer stories that captured
attention and served as examples in the conversations during the workshop.
Incident reporting is one way to obtain such rich stories. But this method
of gathering data is largely passive. There is no way to obtain data other
than by encouraging practitioners to send back reports when things go
awry. Other, more active approaches are also possible.
Gary Klein has
conducted many critical incident studies to better understand the nature
of expertise in complex settings (see Klein, 1998), and he commented on
other approaches that can be used to generate collections of incidents.
In Klein’s technique, researchers first proactively go out to practitioners and
help them recall and walk through past incidents. The focus of these
discussions is to help practitioners generate cases that illustrate the nature of
expertise, show how they succeed, demonstrate what makes problems hard,
and reveal how failure occurs. As in the uncelebrated cases, contrasting
success and failure provides critical insights. The analysis is an involved
process that extracts the critical factors in the story and shows the interplay
between these factors. It depends on concepts and models about the factors
that affect human performance (genotypical patterns). It looks for patterns
and contrasts across a set of cases that speak to an issue or question.
The studies in the uncelebrated cases illustrate this kind of active research
process. They illustrate how the results provide insight about how the
system works much of the time but how it is also vulnerable to failure.
They illustrate how this insight can guide investments that will enhance
safety. The uncelebrated cases are not simply specific places where this
Day Two — Incident Reporting and Analysis
An early example in medicine of the use of these active techniques is a series of studies by Cooper and colleagues
in anesthesia in the late 70’s (e.g.,Cooper et al.,1978). Based in part on the classic work in Human Factors
(Flanagan JC. The critical incident technique.Psychol Bull. 1954;51: 327-358.) Cooper used proactive techniques to
better understand the landscape of safety in anesthesia.
learning has gone on, places where we are ready for the work to develop
and test enhancements. They are also markers and beacons for the kind
of process that is needed to better understand the vulnerabilities in other
areas of health care and to see new ways forward to enhance safety.
The discussion at the workshop considered the many issues associated
with analyzing incidents or accidents—how we learn from such events.
As failure rates fall, the ability to learn individually or collectively
from failure falls as well. The meaning of a particular failure will be
ambiguous and contentious. The multiple contributors each necessary
but only jointly sufficient for the accident, complicate the ways in which
accidents are investigated and understood. This makes the attributions
of cause complex. In turn, these characteristics of the post-accident
aftermath influence the learning process in several ways. At least two
are worth mentioning here.
First, many accident investigations end prematurely. After the fact,
people only see the ways that practitioners at the sharp end could have
acted differently because of hindsight bias
. The variety of organizational
and institutional factors that influence the decisions and actions at the
sharp end are unexamined or discounted. The risk of ending the
investigation early is great. Taken as a whole, the research studies show
that organizational factors play a critical role in fostering events and
create vulnerabilities and latent failures that contribute to events.
Second, failure is often seen as a unique event
, an anomaly without
wider meaning for the domain in question. Post-accident commentary
typically emphasizes how the circumstances of the accident were unusual
and do not have parallels for other people, other groups, other
organizations, other technological systems.
The narrow focus on human error as the cause of the accident serves to
reinforce this view. If a given accident is caused by isolated human error
then the accident is without deeper meaning. After all, the reasoning goes,
the human performance in the accident was so egregious that it cannot
possibly have meaning for us here. We are more careful. We are more
Emphasizing differences blocks the learning process. High reliability
organizations appear to recognize that incidents mark vulnerabilities and
threats that could indeed happen to them (see Weick and Roberts, 1993).
They search for levels of analysis that demonstrate, not the differences,
but the similarities between the accident situation and others in order to
find new ways to improve the larger system.
Learning from Incidents
Day Two — Incident Reporting and Analysis
he conversation that took place over two days at the workshop was
a wide ranging discussion about safety, accidents, and research in
health care. The discussion was mainly about contrasts:
● between celebrated and uncelebrated cases;
● between success and failure; and
● between naïve attributions of failure to human error and detailed
investigations of the strengths and weaknesses of expert human
performance in context.
This report presents one synthesis of the materials from the workshop—it
follows a few threads through the two days of talk.
Just like any real conversation, there were sometimes several topics
discussed at once. Many issues were raised, questions put, and subjects
left hanging without conclusion. The workshop did not attempt to
develop a consensus. Rather it was an effort to obtain a variety of
perspectives, to engage in an exploration of safety in new ways.
The researchers offered no solutions, nor did they identify easy paths to
success. Rather they pointed out how myopic our present approaches to
safety actually are. In polite and sometimes not so polite terms they
indicated that fascination with the celebrated cases of failure is unlikely to
yield any real progress towards safety. They encouraged research into the
basis for success as a means for understanding failure. They pointed out
how careful examination of seemingly peripheral questions about how
practitioners work provided the new insights. They showed how research
on understanding of the real tasks of real practitioners can lead to new
technology that actually improves performance.
The researchers warned against narrow focus on practitioners at the sharp
end, pointing out that the lessons from other industries are that accidents
reflect systemic factors and not individual ones. They warned, too, against
trying to treat safety in isolation from the other aspects of health care.
Rather, safety is an embedded feature of a complex, dynamic system. They
were optimistic and encouraging about prospects for research that bears on
safety in health care but, as seasoned researchers with long experience on
these topics from other industries, they were also cautious about the recent
flurry of interest in safety as a goal. Several times the conversation turned
from potential for progress to warnings against efforts to improve safety
directly by programs that look attractive but are disconnected to the larger
research base on human and system performance. Their experience
with other industries indicated that the need for the appearance of a
commitment to safety can sometimes take precedence over the long,
painstaking efforts required to make real progress. It is much easier to
talk about a “safety culture” than it is to create one.
Charles Dickens’ book A Tale of Two Cities begins with a famous litany
contrasting the time as both the best and the worst. The title of this
report is meant to evoke that same sense of contrast.
At a superficial level—at the level of the celebrated cases as they are
usually presented—the story of safety in health care is about repeated,
unrelated, isolated, incomprehensible accidents that dog the heels of the
vaunted successes of modern technological health care.
At a deeper level, the story is about the ways in which success and failure
are derived from the same sources. It is about the ways in which exposure
to hazards is indivisibly connected to the pursuit of success. In this
contrasting view, the bad events are not separate phenomena that can be
eliminated by the use of some managerial or technological tool. Safety is
not a separate entity that can be manipulated or achieved in isolation.
Rather it is an emergent property of the ways in which the technical,
individual, organizational, regulatory, and economic factors of health care
join together to create the settings in which events—the best ones and the
Although the researchers had much to say about safety, none of them were
researchers on safety in itself. Their research is primarily about human
performance, technology, organizational behavior, and even philosophy.
These are all fields that bear on safety and describe the ways in which the
factors interact to cause safety to emerge. John Flach spoke for many of the
researchers when he said, “researchers pursue interesting questions.” His
point was that this work may lead to new views and applications that
advance safety, but that the really effective research does not start out that
way. His statement can be taken as a warning about the need to establish
and sustain a variety of lines of research on human and system
performance in health care in order to make progress on safety. The
uncelebrated cases all involved long-term efforts focused on apparently
small questions. This much is clear—gaining more insight requires
sustained, detailed efforts.
The situation confronting those who want to increase safety today is not
unlike that confronting those who wished to eradicate cancer a generation
ago or more recently those who wished to find a cure for AIDS. At first
glance, these were simply applied problems that needed bigger, better,
more powerful treatments of the sort that were already being applied. But
the real improvement in treatment of these diseases came not from direct
applications. The real improvements came from study of the mechanisms
of disease, often in areas that appeared only superficially related to
the problem at hand. The discovery of genetic causes of cancer, the
development of the protease inhibitors that now offer HIV-infected people
a chance for long life, came out of efforts that looked scientifically into the
complex mechanisms that underlie these diseases. It is ironic that the
research pathways that led to these successes do not immediately suggest
to us similar approaches to learning about safety by studying the complex
mechanisms that lead to success and failure.
The organizers of the conference thought to challenge the assembled
researchers to describe how their research could be used to gain new
insights into safety in health care. The researchers provided a host
of pointers and engaged in a wide-ranging conversation about the
opportunities and obstacles to research on safety. Several contacts
between individual researchers and potential users of their work happened
at the workshop. The transfusion medicine work was particularly
interesting to some of the workshop sponsors. The lessons about incident
reporting and analysis captured the attention of other people and
organizations. But in the end, the researchers challenged the organizers
and by extension, the health care community to take a new look at safety,
to change long-held views about the sources of success and failure, and to
look more closely at the ways in which our fascination with the celebrated
cases limits our ability to see the larger world in which safety is created
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drugs with an electromechanical infusion device. Journal of
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controllers in the heart room. In Stassen HG (ed), Analysis, Design
and Evaluation of Man-Machine Systems 1992, Pergamon Press.
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List of Participants
Name Affiliation Location
Bagian,James Environmental Protection Ann Arbor,MI
Billings,Charles Ohio State University Columbus,OH
Blim,Jill National Patient Safety Foundation Chicago,IL
Boaz,Lev Israel Health Ministry Jerusalem,ISRAEL
Bogner,Sue Institute for Study of Medical Error Washington,DC
Charles,Sara University of Illinois at Chicago Chicago, IL
Cook,Richard University of Chicago Chicago,IL
Cooper,Jeffrey Partners Health System Cambridge, MA
Diamond,Louis The MEDSTAT Group Washington,DC
Dominguez,Cynthia Wright Patterson AFB Dayton, OH
Donchin,Yoel Hadassah Hospital Jerusalem,ISRAEL
Fischhoff, Baruch Carnegie Mellon Pittsburgh,PA
Flach,John Wright State University Dayton, OH
Gaba,David Stanford University Palo Alto, CA
Goldman,Larry American Medical Association Chicago, IL
Goldman,Ronald Dept.of Veterans Affairs Washington,DC
Hancock,Peter University of Minnesota Minneapolis,MN
Hendee,William Medical College of Wisconsin Milwaukee,WI
Hirschhorn,Larry Wharton Center for Philadelphia, PA
Hollnagel,Erik Halden Reactor Project Halden,NORWAY
Klein,Gary Klein Associates Yellow Springs,OH
Knox,Eric MMI Insurance Companies Minneapolis,MN
Leape, Lucian Harvard School of Public Health Cambridge, MA
Margolis,Howard University of Chicago Chicago,IL
Mecher,Carter Dept.of Veterans Affairs Atlanta,GA
Miller,Charlotte National Patient Safety Foundation Chicago, IL
Nance, John ABC News Aviation Analyst Seattle,WA
Nozick,Linda Cornell University Ithaca,NY
O’Connor,Michael University of Chicago Chicago,IL
Palmer,Larry Cornell Law School Ithaca,NY
Palmisano, Don AMA Board of Trustees Metairie, LA
Parsons,Don Kaiser Permanente Washington,DC
Patton,Larry Agency for Health Care Policy Washington,DC
Ragan,Michael CNA HealthPro Chicago,IL
Ray,Wendy Kaiser Permanente Portland, OR
Roberts, Karlene UC Berkeley Berkeley, CA
Selby,Joe Kaiser Permanente Oakland,CA
Senders,John University of Toronto Toronto,Ontario,
Smith,Phil Ohio State University Columbus,OH
Solomon,Ronni ECRI Philadelphia,PA
Tasca, Leo Ministry of Transportation Downsview, Ontario,
Vogt,Eleanor National Patient Safety Foundation Chicago, IL
Weingart,Saul Beth Israel Deaconness Hospital Boston, MA
Woods,David Ohio State University Columbus,OH
Xiao,Yan University of Maryland College Park,MD
Zipperer, Lorri National Patient Safety Foundation Chicago,IL
This appendix contains the talk by Charles Billings, MD,Chief Scientist (retired),
NASA Ames,on the lessons learned from incident reporting in aviation. Dr.Billings
designed,started and managed the Aviation Safety Reporting System 22 years ago
when at NASA’s Ames Research Center. His talk framed the discussion on the
second day of the workshop. The lessons he abstracted from the aviation
experiences represent the best guidance available on incident reporting. Medicine
is quite different from aviation in many ways. What proved successful in aviation
is not likely to transfer directly and literally to medicine. However,the lessons
Dr.Billings has derived are generic and can serve as a guide to develop successful
systems in medicine.
Incident Reporting Systems in Medicine
and Experience With the Aviation Safety
Charles Billings, MD
Institute for Ergonomics
Ohio State University
This is only a brief digest of what I think are some of the most compelling and
important issues regarding formalized incident reporting. I hesitate to use the
term systems to describe the many different approaches to incident reporting.
To call them “systems” would dignify them unjustifiably,at least at this point. But
I acknowledge that there are various requirements that,in the past,have shaped
the systems during design and implementation. The experience with the aviation
safety reporting system,in which I developed the ideas that form the basis for
this presentation,exemplifies these requirements. The first and most critical
requirement for a successful incident reporting system is a demonstrated,tangible,
widely agreed upon need for more and better information. If a substantial portion
of a community believes that it already knows what needs to be known about
incidents,then it is unlikely to give more than lip service to finding out what
incident reporting can discover. Strong,widely held consensus that more and
better information is needed,is essential for the development of successful
incident reporting. The second requirement is for a respected body,one
independent of the influences of other stakeholders, to conduct the collection
and analysis of data. This is an absolute requirement. Some disagree with this,
but many incident reporting schemes have come to grief over the years by being
installed in that body which was charged with oversight or in some other body
that was subservient to the body charged with oversight,of the community whose
activities were being assessed by the incident reporting system.
Two other factors have led to incident reporting schemes coming to grief in the
recent past. One is adequate funding to permit expertise to be brought to bear.
These systems cannot be run with a couple of clerks and a keypunch operator.
For any useful degree of understanding of the reports,incident reporting requires
expertise at the South end equal to that which was on the North end,that is,
there must be expertise used in evaluating the reports as they are obtained.
The other factor necessary is time. There must be adequate time to establish
the system,to gather data and,more importantly to sell the system, its input,
data,information,reports, and conclusions, to those authorities who represent
the ultimate recipients of its products.
To some,these prerequisite requirements may seem obvious,but the simple fact
is that incident reporting schemes have sometimes failed for want of them.
Let me address very briefly the question of whether incident reporting should be
mandated. Those of you who have read the two volumes of materials that were
sent in preparation for the conference (and who were still reading carefully by
the time you got to the end of them!), will have recognized that the New York
hospital incident reporting system is a mandatory system. But the other
documents in these volumes you find in several points the observation that
incidents are underreported. Well,that will come as a less than an overwhelming
surprise to most. Some claim that mandatory reporting is necessary. They say
that if you don’t have mandatory reporting everyone will protect themselves.
I add only that if you do have mandatory reporting,everyone else will protect
themselves. Despite mandatory reports in some locales,the number of incidents
reported is small. For example,according to the materials,Carolina had
15 reports in its first year and Colorado had 17 reports in 2 years. I leave it to
you to decide whether you think that is adequate or not. I will here make the
claim that,in some form,in one way or another, all incident reporting becomes
voluntary. It either becomes voluntary because of inertia on the part of
reporters,or it becomes voluntary because of constraints within the
establishment and the environment,or it becomes voluntary because hospitals
(and there are at least one or two in your two source books) decide that they
are not required to report this particular event because of the fine print in that
particular incident reporting regulation or statute.
Underreporting is a recognized problem. But I’m not at all sure that that
is the critical problem. Staying within the medical context and referring to the
materials from your source books, there are enough reports of mishaps with
potassium chloride, lidocaine,vincristine and other drugs and devices to have made
it very clear that a problem with these exists. The information that these events
occur is already present. We may well ask what it is that keeps us from making
progress on safety,given that we already know about the existence of these
problems. What is added by more formal,elaborate (and expensive) incident
reporting? We may hypothesize that if the events had become known to a central
organization,there would have been discovery of trends and systematic evaluation
of what was going on that,in turn,would have led to some unspecified but
important change. But it is clear,even at this stage,that the hypothetical,safe,
non-punitive incident reporting system is not the primary obstacle to making
progress on safety in medicine. Existing agencies can take action once a problem
is adequately defined,explored,and explained (and,I would have to add, publicized).
A central question facing us is not really how many there are,but how many is
enough. That is to say,there are already many signals that point to a variety of
failures. Part of the consensus that needs to be formed for successful incident
reporting is consensus about what is a sufficiently strong signal to warrant action.
The sourcebook materials suggest that such a consensus remains to be developed.
Stakeholders influence the likelihood of developing consensus. Now once again
I’ve dipped into the sourcebook to the CEO’s retrospective report on the Ben
Kolb case,which is volume 1 tab 4. I’ve added two here because they were
spoken of elsewhere but I found that the CEO listed a rather substantial number
of stakeholders in that two-page report.
The CEO of the organization Risk management department
The governing body The insurer(s)
The staff of the organization The media
The staff directly involved The medical examiners
Physicians and nurses Outside consultants
Support personnel Accrediting organizations
The patient The union(s)
The family Advocacy groups
“The government(s)” The attorneys
That,if you will forgive me, is a lot of people,organizations, interests,stakes and
conflicting goals. If I am prepared to argue to you that incident reporting requires
consensus,it seems reasonable to ask whether consensus can be reached among
these stakeholders on anything including whether it is day or night, whether the
sun is moving to the west or the east.
It will surely be asked by many why consensus among these stakeholders is
necessary. What does it buy if you have it? First,it buys a substantial number of
people and organizations as advocates for incident reporting and the system that
supports it. This is essential to keeping the system a working, living entity in a
contentious,politically driven environment. Second, it buys the participation of
those people who can,if they wish,do something with the information you
It might be useful to turn the question of consensus on its head. What does it
cost you if you don’t have it? At this point I will diverge just slightly to answer
Richard Cook’s question,posed at the beginning of this conference. He asked
what critical failures we now recognize after a lifetime of research. This led me
to think back on the history of the aviation safety reporting system and to identify
the most significant failure in its development. The NASA Aviation Safety
Reporting System was established in response to the cries of virtually everybody
in the community,directly at the order of the FAA Administrator working through
the Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. NASA
was chosen because we represented a respected and presumably objective third
party. We were given one month to establish the system,guide it through
about as many stakeholders as are shown in the table,and present it to the
Administrator as a done deal. We (or,rather,I), in my naiveté made an
assumption. I assumed that since the chief of the FAA was asking for it,
the FAA wanted it. This was a bad mistake.
Over the past 21 years,the NASA Aviation Safety Reporting System has had
the support of virtually everybody in the United States aviation community to a
greater or lesser extent with one notable exception. The exception is the people
under the FAA Administrator—and there are roughly 22,000 of them—whom he
did not consult before he came to NASA and asked for an incident reporting
system. We do well to remember that a primary issue is who may be hurt by
reporting. This is especially of concern where use of immunity (and,originally
in the ASRS,transactional immunity as well) is a prominent feature.
What was the largest segment of the FAA aside from the air traffic control
system? Divisions involving regulations and enforcement. Whose enmity did
we earn the day this thing was announced? Those who had to make it work
in the community. That is the worst mistake I made in 40 years.
So the absence of consensus about the need for and characteristics of incident
reporting was a critical flaw in the development of ASRS. What does it cost you if
you don’t have consensus? It costs you in passivity;resistance to acting on a lot of
the recommendations derived from data received;delays in implementing; even
ridicule. “You know it isn’t a problem,” was one form this passivity and resistance
took. Another was “You guys just don’t understand.” Consensus is critical and it
must include all the stakeholders,not just a few or a special team or a division or
an agency or a company.
I also want to point out that consensus isn’t enough. It’s necessary but it is not
sufficient. Incident reporting also requires understanding and that is even tougher
to establish. Incident reports are unique sets of data. Each incident is unique
and not easily classified or pigeonholed. Generalizations may be possible in
retrospect,given enough detailed data and enough understanding of the data.
But this means understanding details of the task,the context,the environment,
and its constraints. This is why you have got to have experts looking at reports.
Simply constructing taxonomies is grossly insufficient and it permits only counting
of incidents that fall under phrase a,b or c of the taxonomy.
Counting incidents is a waste of time. Why? Because incident reporting is
inherently voluntary. Because the population from which the sample is drawn is
unknown and therefore can not be characterized,and because you lose too much
information and gain too little in the process of condensing and indexing these
reports unless you do what we were fortunate enough to do blindly, and that is
keep all the narratives. Every ASRS report is in fact a narrative rather than a
categorization. And the ASRS keeps every word, except those necessary to be
discarded to de-identify the reports. The evaluation of incidents in such a system
requires an understanding of all that. A deep understanding.
Let me give you an example. We got a report about 2 years after the ASRS
started which, paraphrased, said “I had a frightening experience this morning.
I took my airplane,a Lockheed 1011, off at Los Angeles headed for Vancouver, and
it took full right aileron to keep it in the air. The airplane wanted very badly to
roll sharply to the left.” Fortunately, it was a cold day at Los Angeles, the load in
the airplane was light,the pilot,carrying full right aileron all the way and with help
from the first officer, managed to struggle around the airport and get it back on
the ground at Los Angeles and no one was hurt. Whereupon it was found by the
flight engineer that the two outboard spoilers on the right wing were both fully
extended and had been since the airplane left the ramp.
Why was this not caught? Neither of those two spoilers carries sensors for
spoiler deflection,so the crew,once the airplane was powered up,had no
indication in the cockpit that those devices were extended. You can’t see them
from the cockpit. The airplane was powered down at the time the first officer
made the walk around, and in an all-hydraulic airplane,controls can be in any
position whatever when there is no hydraulic power on. We had three other
similar reports after that,but we really didn’t wait for a second report. We
immediately got why that happened and reported it,de-identified,to those people
we thought needed to know about it. As a matter of fact,the reporting back was
conducted by telephone and that incident was handled initially within 24 hours.
Counts are not what you are after. You can’t,in a voluntary system, determine the
incidence or prevalence of a problem. But if you get two or three reports like
that,you can be pretty sure that you have a problem,and that is what you are
after in this kind of a system. On the other hand,having extolled the kinds of
things incident reporting can do for you more briefly than I usually do,incident
reporting is not the whole answer. I think this is particularly germane to your
considerations here. In aviation accident reporting is mandatory,and accidents
are very precisely defined. Yesterday we discussed the problems associated with
defining and characterizing what an accident is. In aviation we have a much easier
job,and the distinction between an accident,which must be reported, and an
incident is easier to make than is the case in health care. Keep in mind that
incident reporting in aviation is voluntary under most circumstances. Incident
reporting and accident reporting are not substitutes one for the other. They are
Incident reports,properly interpreted,provide new knowledge. It is important
to remember that this is all they provide. They are not a panacea. They only
provide knowledge about what is going on in a particular domain or area of
purview. The incident reports themselves tell you little. They generally do not
tell you how it could be done better. The analysts,looking at many incidents,may
or may not be able to tell you how it may be done better. They are more likely
to know, in many cases,more than the incident reporters. Certainly they are
more likely,over time, through reading these things, to gain some experience and
understanding. But like descriptive epidemiology anywhere else, incident reports
can provide only descriptions of phenomena. Analytic studies and other research
remain critical to a full understanding of the phenomena.
Acting on the new knowledge that comes from combining incident reporting
with analytical studies and detailed research is not and should not be within
the purview of an incident reporting system. I emphasize this because too many
people have thought that incident reporting was the core and primary component
of what was needed. These people thought that simply from the act of collecting
incidents,solutions and fixes would be generated sui generis and that this would
make safety better. Although much is unclear about incident reporting systems,
this one fact is quite clear:incident reporting is only one component of what you
need. Using new knowledge gained from these systems must be the responsibility
of the stake-holders I have listed. This says that the use of this knowledge to spur
new analysis, new research,to guide regulation,to inform management decision
making,to change performance, must be the responsibility of everybody else in
the domain. It must not be the job of the people who run the incident reporting
system,who have got to remain objective and disinterested in order to do this job
as it needs to be done.
The incident reporting system must remain an objective and disinterested third
party to retain its effectiveness. Otherwise,sooner or later,it will be accused,
properly, of bias. There are enough biases we cannot get rid of;it clearly does
not make sense to add more. So, I ask you to consider among other things,what
should be reported. Is harm required? How much harm? What kind of harm?
Is an adverse event—and that is the term Kaplan and his colleagues are using in
Texas—determined by processes or by outcomes? Can incidents be differentiated
from accidents in these settings? The difference is very critical with respect to
legal liability. Unfortunately as we see the increasing trend,referred to in your
sourcebook, toward criminal prosecution as well as civil liability,this question
becomes increasingly important. It becomes increasingly important because
it is entirely possible that if someone decides to go after a criminal indictment
following such an incident or accident or mishap,you may be harboring evidence.
That is not a particularly desirable position for the hapless expert working in one
of these outfits to be in. I believe the legal term for it is obstruction of justice.
This was a serious problem in Canada, where a violation of what in the US is
called an air navigation order is not only a civil violation,it is also a criminal
offense. The people who work within the Canadian confidential air safety
reporting system had to be specifically immunized by Parliment to allow them
to do this task. That would be true in any nation that was governed by the
Napoleonic code. It is increasingly a potential threat in the common-law nations
as well,given what I said yesterday about corporate manslaughter,corporate
crimes involving damage or injury to people. So does it matter? Twenty years
ago I would certainly have said, “Probably not.” Now I would say,“Yes,I think it
probably does.” I am not sure yet of the way to get around this,and I’m doing
a fairly extensive study at the present time to try to figure out how much it
matters. But there is certainly, in aviation at least,an increasing trend toward
imprisoning or invoking other criminal sanctions against people for offenses
committed in the course of their employment in this industry.
Should records ever be protected? There are certainly going to be differences
of opinion with respect to that. Can they ever be protected? One of the most
treasured bits of data within the aviation industry, are the cockpit voice recorder
(CVR) tapes. The police in New Zealand,after an accident there in 1995,
subpoenaed,then sought a court order,then went to trial to get the CVR tape
from that accident in connection with prosecution of the pilot and co-pilot,one of
whom lived and the other of whom did not. The police prevailed at the appellate
level and were given the CVR tape as criminal evidence. That has led to a very
substantial effort in New Zealand to decide what are the limits of evidence
gathering in this environment. And, as a matter of fact, the New Zealand Law
Commission is looking into that at the present moment. This is a very serious
question. Another question, related to it,is should the analytical records of an
incident reporting system be protected? Sufficiently detailed, these analytical
records may make it almost unnecessary to get to the raw data. In this country,
thus far,raw data,from the aviation safety reporting system once de-identified has
been considered hearsay and therefore inadmissible in the vast majority of cases.
That may be the balm that can be spread upon the wounds in some of these
other nations within the common-law states but in any event,this question
remains an important one.
And finally,is an incident reporting system possible in this,that is to say, the
medical environment? Thinking of the number of stakeholders involved,thinking
of the enormity of the hypothesized problem,I think that we all need to reserve
judgment. We need to have more evidence,gathered by different means—
converging evidence to bring to bear on this question. Until this problem is
scoped,neither the National Patient Safety Foundation nor anyone else is going
to be able to figure out how to tackle it, so I think that that should clearly be
one of your front-end research objectives. But however large the problem,the
diversity amongst the stakeholders is very worrying. Now in the supplementary
sourcebook, I’ve included some view graphs describing the NASA Aviation Safety
Reporting System. A couple of those deal with our advisory committee,which
represents a broad segment of the large,complex,diverse, aviation industry.
But the size, complexity,and diversity of aviation are simply not on the scale of
medicine;in fact,aviation is nowhere near. I would offer you some hope that it
may be possible to define areas within medicine in which there is a somewhat
smaller constituency, a somewhat smaller group of stakeholders and within which,
therefore, the problem may be slightly more tractable than it will be if you decide
that your purview is all of medicine. I am not sure I would know at this point,
even after 20-plus years of experience with this business,how to design a system
for medicine. I think I could perhaps design a system for some subsegments of
medicine, that are more tightly circumscribed,but I hasten to add that I am not
even sure of that.
These are some of the questions you are going to have to face as you begin
to think about incident reporting systems in this particular domain. They make
success in medicine much less certain, in contrast with the undoubted success
that incident reporting systems have had in the aviation environment and a very
few others. There are many other detailed issues to consider in developing
incident reporting within medicine, issues that you will need to address in detail,
should you chose to pursue this line of work. All these other questions deserve
attention. But you will find,I think, that the ones I have presented here today are
among the largest,most important ones that will be critical to the success or
failure of any new incident reporting system in medicine. I think those kinds of
questions need to be thought about very carefully,deliberately, intelligently, and
thoroughly before beginning.
Question 1: Would you comment about your efforts over the years to keep
the ASRS alive?
Well,that was the first thing we had to do. In some ways,this was actually fairly
straightforward because the industry,by and large,recognized that they had a
problem. The Administrator of the FAA had a political problem,but this is not
particularly germane in our discussion today. The larger aviation industry,including
all the stakeholders,had a real problem and recognized it. So this particular seed
fell upon reasonably fertile ground. We got along reasonably well initially until we
began to recognize the depths of the disinterest of the FAA working staff in this
program. We did everything we could to interest them. We went out and we
talked to as many of them as we could get to. We worked within FAA
headquarters to try to get them to understand what they had put us into.
This was not entirely successful, but we got along by and by fairly well,until
political problems arose concerning a freedom of information act request asking
for an evaluation and discussion of air traffic congestion in terminal areas. The
ASRS was obligated to respond to this,and it did. We put together a report
whose principal finding of concern was that near mid-air collisions appeared from
our data to be most likely in the highest density terminal control areas in the
United States. The next most likely areas for near mid-air collisions were what
were called Airport Radar Service Areas. These were the terminal areas around
secondary but still busy airports. Near mid-air collisions were less likely to occur
This would probably not surprise you all much and it did not surprise us. But,
it was of course a direct affront to the agency which regulates air space in the
United States,and which had been saying,as part of its campaign to establish some
10 or 12 new terminal control areas,that they were the safest place in the air.
The internal political response to this report was complex but amounted to
an effort to remove the legal immunity that protected reports to the ASRS.
Although this was forestalled by the intervention of Congress,it is clear in
retrospect that the survival of the system as a working entity depended on the
consensus within the community that had been reached early in the development
of the system. It is one example of the importance of stakeholders who are
directly and actively involved.
Question 2: Does the fact that pilots are at personal risk when flying have
something to do with the success of the system? Is that a reason that you
think this system might work much better in aviation than it might be made
to work in medicine?
Well,it is certainly true that pilots are normally the first people at the scene of an
accident. But the answer in my view is no,it is not the sense of personal risk that
has driven pilots to participate in the system. I read the first 30,000 of these
reports that came in. I have not read the ensuing 340,000 or so. One is
continually amazed by the number of people who do far more than they need
in order to qualify for immunity under this system. People write pages of
descriptions,they send tapes,they volunteer to come to our offices. They make
clear in a number of ways that they want us to understand, in all its rich detail,the
complexity of the incident in which they had been involved and which they had
already reported by mail. One indication of the sincerity and dedication of these
people is that some have had such close interaction that they have become
personal friends. There is no question about the motivation of the pilot community
in general with respect to safety issues,none whatever. The reports are not
grudging acknowledgement or pro forma filings but rather quite rich and human
descriptions of troubling, often frightening events. I believe that the reporting to
this system is motivated not by the sense of personal risk that attaches to flying
but rather from two major factors:(1) the sincere interest in improving safety by
identifying hazards and (2) the sincere (and,in my view,well grounded) belief that
the system to which they are reporting uses that information productively and
deliberately to improve safety rather than simply as a means of counting failures.
Parenthetically,I know that the system has been “gamed” in the course of
adjudication of labor issues. I think it would be very surprising if it were not.
But that becomes relatively easy to pick out;one notices it. One occasionally gets
some very good information out of those reports incidentally,because some of
that gaming is over issues that are real and substantive. The fatigue and jet lag
issue is one that I think of immediately although that is by no means the only
one. But once again you have to have a human—a smart human and a motivated
human—who understands and has been there at the sharp end of the process
from which reports come as well as at the analytical end. And I do not believe
there is any substitute for that.
Question 3: Could you comment on expertise issues in the procedure for
examining incidents and looking for patterns?
Pilots get rusty after about so long;as you know,many of our analytical people
are retired pilots. We have instituted a set of rotations for these people, whereby
they would come and work for us for a period of time and then they would move
on and we would replace them with others coming out of the cockpit. Now that
has been in place for probably fifteen years now,and it is also true with respect
to our air traffic controllers. No one can stay adequately familiar with the niceties
in an industry this complex unless he or she has been actively working in it until
Interestingly,although we have been overwhelmed at times by the number of
reports,the system for handling those reports has changed remarkably little.
They are all hand-read by an expert who is appropriate to the field of
consideration in the report. The reports are still identified at that stage and are
being handled as classified material,so that if more data is required we can get it
directly from the reporter. We still have the pilot’s name, phone numbers,things
of that sort. We will attempt to call the pilot back and discuss in more detail the
incident that was reported and sometimes secondary issues as well, before the
reports are de-identified. We do classification on a number of classification fields.
The reports are processed,the narratives are de-identified with respect to
person,flight numbers,and things of that sort,and then those narrative reports
are keyed directly into a data base as well as of 60 or 70 fields of coded data.
So the classification system,which is primarily used for indexing,provides access
to the narrative. It is also possible to search the narrative fields by words, by
phrases,and considerable amount of research has been done using that,as well.
We would have lost all of that had we destroyed the narrative.
Question 4: What does it cost to run this system now?
To the best of my knowledge it’s about two million dollars per year for about
35,000 to 40,000 reports.
Question 5: Currently in the medical field,legal requirements for
discoverability drive access to these incident reports. In Louisiana and
Arizona,for instance,between 50% and 100% of incident reports are
discoverable in civil cases. This has created a substantial incentive to make
these reports narrow and short. There is a strong emphasis, stated explicitly
in most cases as directions to the reporting individual, to limit what is
described to objective rather than subjective information. For example,
regarding a fall in the hospital,what people are instructed to record and
report is the bare fact that someone slipped and fell. If the individual said,
“I slipped on water” the incident reporter can put that in quotes but needs
to avoid concluding that they slipped on water. Thus these reports are
limited to observations of the scene, noting the times, locations and so on.
Are the ASRS reports specifically limited in those ways—that is,narrow,
succinct, objective and without any opinions about the incident or how it
occurred? Will such a system produce results similar to those obtained via
Absolutely not. We rely on preservation of this material as classified material
initially,on rapid de-identification,and on blurring enough of the details of such a
report so that it would at least be difficult to introduce it as evidence. But we
also need the reports of people, of pilots, who we understand are experts in their
field and whose opinions,thoughts,and observations we value. We do not try to
limit them or channel their descriptions in a particular way. Indeed, it would
surely limit the value of the reports if we were to artificially constrain the
narratives to eliminate any conclusions or opinions from the pilots. But these
reports are data,and we all recognize that data has biases and limits and the
important thing is to try to understand these. This goes back to the problem of
throwing away data when you throw away the narratives—counting doesn’t work,
that is not what you are after in incident reporting. Limiting the narratives in the
way you describe would be throwing away the data even before you got it,a
serious mistake in my view.
Now with respect to de-identifying the events in the database—that can be a bit
hard. I think particularly of this city in which we find ourselves,and arriving here
early one morning shortly before I retired from NASA,to see a 747 sitting
ingloriously in the dirt, between Runway 10-Right and the taxiway adjacent to it.
Now that was not,as it happened,an accident. The monetary value of it was not
high enough to require defining it that way,partly because it was soft mud and
there was little damage to the plane. But I would have hated to try to de-identify
that report sufficiently so that it would be in the database but unidentifiable. A
747 is one big moose when it is sitting out there where everyone can see it.
Sourcebook: Workshop on Assembling the
Scientific Basis for Progress on Patient
Safety. Volume I
Section A. Celebrated Cases
The “celebrated” cases are medical accidents that have attracted a great deal of attention
in the press and from various stakeholders. A variety of reactions from healthcare
professionals, regulators,and the public appear in these articles. Most of the material
included on these cases comes from newspaper articles. Also included is a more discursive
document on the ‘wrong leg’ case that indicates the perspective of the state regulatory
body and the rationale for the revocation of the surgeon’s license. Also included are some
cases demonstrating the recent trend towards treating medical accidents as criminal events
A-1 (Willie King wrong leg case;Dr.Rolando Sanchez)
Agency for Health Care Administration vs. Rolando Roberto Sanchez,M.D.Fla.Div.of Admin.
Hearings. Recommended order. Case no.95-3925
Tampa hospital had earlier surgical slipup.The Ledger (Lakeland,Fla). March 8,1995;
Wrong-leg surgeon cut:toe for two.The Commercial Appeal (Memphis).July 19,1995;
Bartlett R. Hospital safety law proposed: bill would compile data on deaths,injuries,
infections.The Tampa Tribune.February 9,1996; Florida/metro:6.
Clary M.String of errors put Florida hospital on the critical list.Los Angeles Times.April 14,
Hagigh J.Family sues surgeon,UCH.St.Petersburg Times.January 26,1996; Tampa today:4B.
Expert: King error a group effort.St. Petersburg Times. September 14, 1995; Tampa
Fatal error earns suspension. St. Petersburg Times. February 3, 1996; Tampa today:3B.
Surgeon fined,suspended 6 months for error. St. Petersburg Times. December 3, 1995;
Leisner P.Surgeon says it was too late to stop amputation on wrong leg.Associated Press,
Mahan M.This time, hospital’s error is fatal.St. Petersburg Times. March 12,1995; Tampa Bay
Oppel S.Medical board examines fatal error.St. Petersburg Times. October 26, 1995; Tampa
Bay and state:1B.
Doctor’s penalty reduced.The Tampa Tribune. December 3, 1995; nation/world:1.
Surgeon fights penalty. The Tampa Tribune.November 8,1995;Florida/metro:6.
Wrong-amputation surgeon makes return.The Tampa Tribune. February 29,1996;
Ripley J. Amputated foot worth more than $1-million.St. Petersburg Times.May 12, 1995;
Tampa Bay and state:1B.
Rosen M.Report: hospital cut safeguards.St. Petersburg Times.April 7,1995;national:1A.
Ryan P.State slaps surgeon:agency says doctor “serious danger” following 2 amputation
complaints.The Tampa Tribune. July 15,1995; nation/world:1.
Shaver K,Carlton S.Right foot amputated.St.Petersburg Times.March 8,1995; around
Amputee recovering after wrong leg taken.The Tampa Tribune. February 28,1995;
Bill seeks hospital disclosures:sponsors want data on injuries inflicted upon patients to
be made public. The Tampa Tribune.March 4,1995;Florida/metro:1.
Federal agency tells hospital to fix problems. The Tampa Tribune.March 30,1995;
Hospital cites new safeguards. The Tampa Tribune. March 2,1995; Florida/metro:1.
License won’t assure surgeon job: Rolando Sanchez may be allowed to practice again,
but he must convince hospitals and insurers to take him back.The Tampa Tribune.
January 17, 1996; nation/world:1.
Mistake found during surgery:testimony begins in appeals hearing for doctor who
amputated wrong foot. The Tampa Tribune.September 13, 1995; nation/world:1.
Surgeon faced previous claim: the same physician recently was involved in a wrong-foot
amputation.The Tampa Tribune. March 2,1995;Florida/metro:1.
“That’s the wrong leg:” victim tries to cope with botched surgery.The Tampa Tribune.
March 10,1995; nation/world:1.
UCH reduces number of surgeries. The Tampa Tribune.April 7, 1995; nation/world:10.
Surgeon suspended for cutting off wrong leg. The Herald (Glasgow).December 4, 1995:6.
We don’t need this kind of doctor [editorial]. The Tampa Tribune.July 20,1995.
Wilson M.Surgical horrors. Chicago Tribune.March 10,1995;news:7.
A-2 (Betsy Lehman)
Committees find signs of weak leadership at Dana-Farber.The New York Times.
October 31,1995;sect C:5.
Hospital is disciplined by agency after errors.The New York Times.April 16, 1995;
Associated Press.Settlement reached in overdose lawsuit. The New York Times.August 25,
Estrich S.Why protect doctors? USA Today.March 30,1995; news,counterpoints:13A.
Goodman E.The diagnosis:losing patients, losing faith. The Plain Dealer.April 2,1995;
Chemotherapy deaths spur safer methods.The Boston Globe.December 23,1996;
Dana-Farber,doctor face malpractice suit.The Boston Globe.April 6,1995;
Dana-Farber head quits 2d post,vows changes.The Boston Globe. May 26, 1995;
Dana-Farber probe widens:three suspended from patient care. The Boston Globe.
Dana-Farber puts focus on mistakes in overdoses. The Boston Globe. October 31, 1995;
Dana-Farber studies pattern in overdoses.The Boston Globe. March 26,1995;
Dana-Farber tests signaled an overdose,records show.The Boston Globe. May 2, 1995;
Dana-Farber wins near-perfect score:changes follow 2 patient overdoses.The Boston
Globe.June 5,1996; metro/region:44.
Doctor’s orders killed cancer patient: Dana-Farber admits drug overdose caused death
of Globe columnist,damage to second woman.The Boston Globe. March 23,1995;
Hospital’s record of sympathy faulted:says response to distress factored in death.The
Boston Globe.July 16,1995; metro/region:21.
Licensing board reprimands 3 Dana-Farber pharmacists. The Boston Globe.
Media spotlight helped spur change, shook up patients, staff.The Boston Globe.
New Dana-Farber head vows “never again.” The Boston Globe. September 16,1995;
New policies put in place.The Boston Globe. December 26, 1995; metro/region:20.
Overdoses still weigh heavy at Dana-Farber:more than year after tragedy,cancer
institute works to balance research mission,crucial details of patient care. The Boston
Globe.December 26,1995; metro/region:1.
President of troubled Dana-Farber steps down.The Boston Globe.September 13,1995;
Response is slow to deadly mixups:too little done to avert cancer drug errors.The
Boston Globe.June 26,1995; science & technology:29.
State cites Dana-Farber failures:quality assurance program faulted.The Boston Globe.
May 31, 1995; metro/region:1.
State probe cites lax management at Dana-Farber.The Boston Globe. May 25,1995;
State regulators vow multi-agency probe of Dana-Farber overdose.The Boston Globe.
March 29,1995; metro/region:21
Survivor’s spirit beats a chemotherapy error.The Boston Globe.December 17, 1995;
Top Dana-Farber doctor steps down.The Boston Globe.May 11, 1995; metro/region:1.
Knox RA, Blanton K. Overdoses cloud Dana-Farber bonds.The Boston Globe. March 24,
Knox RA,Golden D.
Dana-Farber turmoil seen.The Boston Globe.May 28, 1995; metro/region:1.
Drug dosage was questioned:Dana-Farber pharmacist sent order back to doctor in
breast cancer case.The Boston Globe.June 19,1995; metro/region:1.
Dana-Farber given the OK for Medicare after correction.The Boston Globe.August 3,
State faults Dana-Farber:says center failed to tell promptly of two overdoses of cancer
drug.The Boston Globe.March 24,1995; metro/region:1.
Lasalandra M.Dana-Farber workers probed in death.The Boston Herald.October 31,1995;
Lessons of a life lost [editorial].The Boston Globe. March 24,1995; editorial page:18.
Overdose survivor forgives cancer institute in Boston.Chicago Tribune. December 18,
Pertman A. Betsy A. Lehman,39:Globe columnist on personal health [obituary].The Boston
Globe.December 4,1994; obituaruies:56.
Spingarn ND. Doctors can prevent errors just by listening [letter].The New York Times.
July 25, 1995;sect A:14.
Stein C. Doctor sues Farber Globe in overdose case.The Boston Globe. February 3,1996;
Trafford A.The empathy gap.The Washington Post,August 29,1995;health:Z6.
Warsh D. Molecular medicine vs. bedside manner in the Lehman case: economic principals.
The Boston Globe.September 17,1995; economy:79.
A-3 (Vincent Gargano)
Associated Press.Cancer patient dies after chemotherapy overdose.June 15,1995.
Fatal chemotherapy overdose suit filed. Chicago Tribune. June 21,1995; metro west:3.
Chemotherapy fears increase after death:dosage checks failed, U.of C. officials admit.
Chicago Tribune. June 16,1995;Chicagoland:1.
U.of C.cancer patient dies of chemotherapy overdose.Chicago Tribune. June 15,1995;
The New York Times.Cancer patient in Chicago dies after chemotherapy overdose.
The New York Times. June 18,1995;sect 1:17.
Phillips SE.Editorial’s outrage misplaced [letter]. Modern Healthcare.July 17,1995;letters:32.
Spate of errors tarnishes prestigious reputations [editorial].Modern Healthcare.June 26,
A-4 (Ben Kolb)
Cox News Service.
“Medical accident” cited in boy’s death.St.Petersburg Times.January 12,1996; Tampa Bay
“Mistake” in surgery led to boy’s death,Fla. hospital admits; family settles with “no hard
feelings.” The Phoenix Gazette. January 12,1996;news:A32.
Examining Errors in Health Care:Developing a Prevention, Education and Research Agenda.A
case study:how does the health care system respond to an injury caused by error?
Symposium.Rancho Mirage, Calif.October 13-15,1996.
Graulich H.Hospital admits syringe mix-up killed boy.The Palm Beach Post.January 11,
Krupnick,Campbell,Malone,Roselli, Buser,Slama & Hancock,A Professional Association. In
memory of Ben:October 13, 1988 - December 14, 1995.
MMI Companies,Inc. Developing a crisis management and communication plan.Risk
Modification Strategies. July,1995.
Reeder J.St.Lucie boy’s death ruled bad reaction to epinephrine. The Palm Beach Post.
Trontz I.Hospital’s admission of fatal error cited as model.The Palm Beach Post.
November 18, 1996;A sect:1A.
A-5 (Libby Zion)
Agus C. Zion nurse didn’t want to “hang” doc. Newsday. December 2, 1994; news:A33.
Andrews L.“I was juror no. 6, the lone dissenter in the Libby Zion case [letter].The New
York Times. February 21,1995; sect A:18.
Asch DA,Parker RM. Sounding board: the Libby Zion case. The New England Journal of
Medicine.March 24,1988; 318:771-775.
Doctors faulted in 1984 death of 18-year-old.The New York Times. May 26, 1990; sect 1:27.
Judge halts regents censure of two doctors in Zion case.The New York Times. June 23,
Belkin L.Effects are unclear in limits on medical residents’ hours.The New York Times.
February 23, 1993;A:1
Cantor C.Hospital residents pressure for change.The New York Times.August 9,1992;
Carmody D. New York Hospital disputes allegations on patient’s death. The New York Times.
January 15, 1987; sectB:2.
Cohen T.About health;interns’ hours: a red herring.Newsday. June 23,1989;viewpoints;
New York forum:80
Colburn D. Medical education:time for reform? after a patient’s death,the 36-hour shift
gets new scrutiny.The Washington Post. March 29,1988;health:Z6.
Collins D.A father’s grief,a father’s fight.Los Angeles Times. February 1,1995; life & style,
Daley S.Hospital interns’ long hours to be reduced in New York.The New York Times.
June 10,1988; sect A:1.
Douglas RG Jr.Zion case verdict vindicates training system [letter]. The New York Times.
February 14, 1995; sect A:18.
Dubin J.Zion case verdict vindicates training system: on the evidence [letter]. The New York
Times.February 14, 1995; sect A:18.
A limit on doctors’ hours is debated.The New York Times.April 5, 1989; sect B:3.
In overhaul of hospital rules, New York slashes interns’ hours. The New York Times.
July 3, 1989;sect 1:1.
Fugh-Berman A.Exhausted doctors don’t serve patients well.The New York Times.
March 3,1995; sect A:26.
Handelman S.Student’s death haunts U.S.medical establishment.The Toronto Star.
Hershenson R.New rules pose conflict for interns.The New York Times.February 14, 1993;
Doctors’ accounts vary in death of Libby Zion. The New York Times. January 1,1995;
In the Zion case, a doctor and profession on the stand.The New York Times.
November 19, 1994;sect 1:27.
Judge sets aside use of cocaine as part of verdict in Zion case.The New York Times.
May 2, 1995; sect B:1.
Jurors find shared blame in ’84 death.The New York Times. February 7,1995; sect B:1.
Japenga A.Endless days and sleepless nights: do long work schedules help or hinder medical
residents? Los Angeles Times.March 6,1988; view,part 6:1
Kleinfield NR.Doctor’s criticism in ’84 case strains hospitals’ bonds. Newsday.August 5,
Kocieniewski D.Libby Zion doc admits medical team failure.The New York Times.
November 17, 1994; news:5.
Landers A.Exhausted resident questions ability to make decisions.The Houston Chronicle.
November 2, 1997; lifestyle:4.
Libby Zion [obituary]. The New York Times. March 6,1984;sect B:10.
Mitler MM,Cetel MB.Why the doctor may fall asleep on your case. Los Angeles Times.
April 9,1989;opinion, part 5:5.
Myers MF.When hospital doctors labor to exhaustion. The New York Times. June 12,1987;
Myerson M.Long hours of medical residents improve care [letter].The New York Times.
February 23, 1995; sect A:22.
Okie S.New prescription for medical interns? controversial N.Y.plan would limit hours of
hospital shifts.The Washington Post.June 30,1987; sect 1:A1.
Prosecuting doctors [editorial].The National Law Journal. September 16, 1985:12.
Roark AC.Lack of sleep not impairing, study finds.Los Angeles Times. September 23, 1988;
Ronches J.Must we squander the legacy of Libby Zion? Newsday. January 3,1995; view
Rovner S.The battle over limiting residents’ hours.The Washington Post. October 16, 1990;
Sack K.Appeals court clears doctors who were censured in the Libby Zion case.The New
York Times. November 1,1991;sect B:2.
Scott G.Court upholds limits on hours for medical residents.Newsday.December 30, 1990;
Segal MM,Cohen B.Hospitals’ junior doctors need senior backups.The New York Times.
June 8,1987; sect A:18.
Some limits supported for intern work hours.The New York Times.August 21, 1987; sect B:3.
Hospital admits fault in patient’s death. The New York Times. March 24,1987;sect B:3.
Third doctor is charged in death.The New York Times.August 11,1987;sect B:3.
Two of Zion’s doctors accused in her death.The New York Times. May 1, 1987; sect B:2.
Weiner E. Panel clears Zion’s doctors of wrongdoing in her death. The New York Times.
September 23,1989;sect 1:28.
Blaming the system.The New York Times. February 4,1987; sect A:27.
Doctors in the dock? The New York Times.December 23, 1985; sect A:17.
Zion S.Doctors know best? The New York Times. May 13, 1989; sect 1:25.
A-6 (Dr. Gerald Einaugler)
Doctor going to prison for fatal medical mistake. March 16,1995.
Doctor’s mistake lands him in city jail convicted of trying to hide fatal error.The Record
(Bergen Record Corp). March 17,1995;news:A14.
Doctor’s order kills patient: physician goes to jail. The Commercial Appeal (Memphis).
March 17,1995; news:6A.
Bayles F. Criminal indictments against doctors seen as “warning shot.” April 12,1995.
Bensel FP,Goldberg BD.Prosecutions and punitives for malpractice rise,slowly. The
National Law Journal.January 22, 1996;in focus,health care:B7.
Bowles P.Doctor does prison time on weekends:L.I.internist serves sentence in B’klyn
nursing-home death.Newsday. May 20,1997; news:A8.
Cohen J,Shapiro R. The criminalization of medical malpractice. New York Law Journal.
August 28,1995;outside counsel:1.
Could a clinical mistake land you in jail? the case of Gerald Einaugler.Medical Economics.
February 21, 1994; 71 no.4:46.
Prosecuting doctors for bad outcomes.Medical Economics.August 21, 1995; 72 no.16:120.
Malpractice is not criminal;mistake is? The National Law Journal. July 28,1997;
Will this internist’s name finally be cleared? Gerald Einaugler.Medical Economics.
March 10,1997; 74 no.5:50.
Criminal conviction upheld,appealed.Medical Malpractice Law & Strategy.April 1997;
Doctors in court. Capital Times (Madison,Wis.) April 12,1995; nation/world:2C.
Doctor’s sentence delayed. The New York Times.March 18, 1995;sect 1:26.
Fein EB.Doctor in negligence case gets his sentence eased. The New York Times. June 28,
Kriegel M.Law’s treatment of doc is criminal. Daily News (New York).May 21, 1997; news:19.
Malpractice or homicide? [editorial].The Washington Post.April 18, 1995;editorial:A16.
Doctor spending weekends in jail:botched procedure in 1990. The Record (Bergen Record
Corp).May 18, 1997; news:A6.
Doctor’s error leads to death,jail. March 16,1995.
Medical errors becoming crimes. Chattanooga Free Press.April 12,1995.
Moy DR.“Cover-up” allegation called unjustified [letter].New York Law Journal.
Nossiter A.A mistake,a rare prosecution, and a doctor is headed for jail. The New York
Times.March 16,1995; sect A:1.
Pines D. Doctor loses death-case appeal:negligence affirmed in treating patient.New York
Law Journal.March 11,1997:1.
Susman C.When doctors err.The Palm Beach Post. May 27, 1995; accent:1D.
Weiner SM, Reibman M. Doctors will get more immunity for mistakes [letter].The New
York Times. March 22,1995;sect A:18.
A-7 (Colorado Nurses)
Newborn boy dies after improper shot.The Washington Times.October 25,1996;part A,
Baby dies after injection:police, state probe death at St.Anthony Hospital North. Rocky
Mountain News.October 24,1996;local,ed F:5A.
Nurses fear indictments put profession on trial: charges in infant’s accidental death are a
first in Colorado. Rocky Mountain News.April 30,1997;local, ed F:28A.
Metro digest:Adams County nurses trial ruling.The Denver Post.June 19,1997;Denver &
Schrader A,Robinson M.
Baby’s nurses face homicide charges.The Denver Post.April 29,1997; sect A:1.
Healthy baby’s tragic death at hospital being probed.The Denver Post. October 25, 1996;
Denver & the West:B7.
UPI.Colo.newborn dies of improper injection. October 24, 1996.
Sourcebook: Workshop on Assembling the
Scientific Basis for Progress on Patient
Safety. Volume II
Section B. Synthetic views
Also from the popular press are two broader perspectives from reporters looking across
multiple accidents and attempting to synthesize a more coherent picture of error and
accident in general. The article by Belkin is the most recent and most detailed piece to
date. Also included is a broadside by the news commentator Sidney Zion, father of Libby
Zion. This response to a media briefing conducted by the National Patient Safety
Foundation provides some suggestion of the charged atmosphere surrounding patient
safety issues and may presage the sorts of difficulty confronting those who seek to develop
and explore a more technically grounded view.
Belkin L.How can we save the next victim? The New York Times Magazine. June 15,1997;
sect6:28-33,44,50, 63, 66, 70.
Cohen M.How can we save the next victim? [letter]. The New York Times.
Ho L.How can we save the next victim? [letter]. The New York Times.
Meyer RH. How can we save the next victim? [letter].The New York Times.
Medicine’s hidden costs: lack of a reporting system permits repetition of mistakes
[editorial].Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. October 31, 1993; editorial:D2.
Deadly hospital mistakes are doomed to be repeated. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Despite all his precautions,an error killed his mother.Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Hospital computer reveals the future.Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. October 28, 1993;
A hospital drug mix-up turns into fatal error. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.October 24, 1993;
Hospitals blind to each other’s mistakes.Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.October 27,1993;
Hospitals to discuss prevention:regional forum will share ideas,methods.
How two lost lives helped to reform a state.Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.October 27, 1993;
Lessons hard to learn if state requires secrecy.Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. October 27, 1993;
“My God! That must be what I gave.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. October 25, 1993;
Prescriptions fraught with danger.Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.October 25, 1993; national:A1.
The slow search for an antidote to health care’s deadly problem.Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Syringe confusion leaves a trail of deadly mix-ups.Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.October 26,
Tragic errors strike baby 3 times.Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. October 25, 1993; national:A7.
Zion S.At long last,some docs ‘fess up.New York Daily News.October 13, 1997;opinion.
Section C. Uncelebrated cases
These items represent areas where some other research base is available and are chosen
because they highlight some of the factors believed to affect success and failure in the
Of particular note are the results of the Harvard Medical Practice Study. This seminal
study has stimulated many to look harder at the factors affecting patient safety. The study
has been widely quoted and its extrapolations have become the basis for many of the
estimates of the “cost of error” and scope of the problem as well as the source of
sometimes heated debate within the medical community.
Brennan TA,Leape LL,Laird NM,Hebert L, Localio AR,Lawthers AG,Newhouse JP,Weiler
PC, Hiatt HH.Incidence of adverse events and negligence in hospitalized patients:results
of the Harvard Medical Practice Study I. N Engl J Med. 1991; 324:370-376.
Leape LL, Brennan TA,Laird N,et al. The nature of adverse events in hospitalized patients:
results of the Harvard medical Practice Study II.N Engl J Med.1991;324:377-384
Stewart L,Way LW. Bile duct injury during laparoscopic cholecystectomy: factors that
influence the results of treatment. Arch Surg.1995; 130:1123-1128.
Way LW. Bile duct injury during laparoscopic cholecystectomy (editorial comment). Annals
of Surgery. 1992;215:195.
Dominguez CO,Flach JM,McKellar DP,Dunn M.Using videotaped cases to elicit perceptual
expertise in laparoscopic surgery.Proceedings:Third Annual Symposium on Human
Interaction With Complex Systems: HICS ’96. Los Alamitos,Calif:IEEE Computer Society
Cook RI,Wood DD, Howie MB,Morrow JC,Galsa DM. Unintentional delivery of
vasoactive drugs with an electromechanical infusion device. Journal of Cardiothoracic and
Vascular Anesthesia. 1992; 6(2):238-244.
Bates DW, Leape LL.Pharmacies and prevention of potentially fatal drug interactions. JAMA.
Cavuto NJ,Woosley RL.Sale M.Pharmacies and prevention of potentially fatal drug
Kraft KE,Dore FH.Computerized drug interaction programs:how reliable? JAMA.1996;
Smith PJ,Galdes D,Fraser J, Miller T,Smith JW Jr,Svirbely JR, Blazina J, Kennedy M,
Rudmann S,Thomas DL.Coping with the complexities of multiple-solution problems:a
case study. Int J Man-Machine Studies.1991;35:429-453.
Guerlain S.Using the critiquing approach to cope with brittle expert systems.Proceedings of
the 1995 Annual Meeting of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society.
American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.
Report of the AAOS Task Force on Wrong Site Surgery.
Advisory statement:wrong-site surgery.September,1997.
Canadian Orthopaedic Association. Committee on Practice and Economics. Position paper
on wrong sided surgery in orthopaedics.June 10,1994.
Cook RI.Human error in the ICU: an episode. 1996.
West S,Walch K,Youngberg, BJ.(1994) Risk management program development.In:
Youngberg BJ (ed). The Risk Manager’s Desk Reference.Gaithersburg, MD:Aspen.
Billings CE.Some hopes,and concerns, regarding medical event reporting systems:lessons
from the NASA Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS). Arch Pathol Lab Med.1998;
Donchin Y, Gopher D, Badihi Y.Recording and analysis of human errors in the intensive care
unit - mission possible?!
Donchin Y, Gopher D, Olin M, Badihi Y, Biesky M,Sprung CL,Pizov R,Cotev S.A look into
the nature and causes of human errors in the intensive care unit. Critical care medicine
Fischhoff B.Communicate unto others...Reliability Engineering and System Safety.1998.
Gaba D. Organizational structures,cultures,and system aspects of safety in tertiary health
care:a comparison with other high-risk industries. (Submitted to the Robert Wood
Johnson Foundation Investigator Awards in Health Policy grant program,July,1996).
Goldschmidt G,Donchin Y. Breathing circuit disconnection during mechanical ventilation
can be prevented! A human factors look into a system:report of a case and analysis.
Grabowski M,Roberts K.Risk mitigation in large-scale systems:lessons from high reliability
organizations.California Management Review.Summer,1997; 39 no.4:152-162.
Leape LL.A systems analysis approach to medical error.Journal of Evaluation in Clinical
Practice.1997; 3 no.3:213-222.
Margolis H.Introduction:Why the public and the experts disagree on environmental issues.
In Dealing With Risk.Chicago:The University of Chicago Press,1996:1-5.
Rasmussen J.Risk management in a dynamic society: a modeling problem.Safety Science.In
Roberts KH, Libuser C.From Bhopal to banking:organizational design can mitigate risk. In
Organizational Dynamics.American Management Association,1993:15-26.
Tasca LL.The social construction of human error [dissertation]. Stony Brook: The State
University of New York;1990:iii, iv, vi, 23-60.
NPSF workshop examination of,3, 4
reactions following, 7-8, 9
uninformative data in,45, 46
contrasted with celebrated cases,35-36
insights from,research process, 42, 43-44
research methods in, 14
research on, 12-13
Causality,see also Human error
incident reporting and analysis,38
proximity and, 9, 10
responsibility attributions,3, 10, 44
Celebrated cases,see Cases,celebrated
Certainty,see Decision making
Chemotherapy overdoses,7, 8
Cockpit voice recorder tapes,57
Colorado nurses case,8,9,68-69
Compliance in reporting,see Incident reporting
brittleness of machine problem solvers, 24
critiquing and advisory components, 23-24
decision support, 24, 25
human interaction with,26-35
infusion devices and drug misadministration,
physician order entry, 1
user-centered automation principles, 33
Confidentiality,see Incident reporting and analysis
Consensus,see Incident reporting and analysis;
(blunt end) context
Cooperative work, see Work,cooperative
Crime, see Law
Dana Farber, 9
Data collection,see Incident reporting and analysis
De-identification (confidentiality),see Incident
reporting and analysis
uncertainty and risk assessments, 16-20
Decision support, 24, 25
Drugs,see also Anesthesia and anesthesiology
injection port identification failure, 8
interactions,Libby Zion case,7,8,9,10
low therapeutic index,10
misadministration via computerized infusion
route of administration,8
Einaugler case, 8, 9, 67-68
Environmental (blunt end) factors, see
Organizational (blunt end) context
Equipment,see also Computers
computerized infusion and drug
design,interface, 33, 34
direct controls, 33
More information on individual celebrated medical
cases (Ben Kolb, Libby Zion, etc.) can be found in
Appendix C,pages 62-71
Accidents,see also Cases,celebrated;Cases,
reporting and analysis;Second story
“first” and “second” stories told about, vii-viii
incidents compared with,57
link between incidents and,38
patient safety research,2
Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, 47
AHCPR (Agency for Health Care Policy and
Research),see US Agency for Health Care
Policy and Research
“Altitude busts,” 40
American Medical Association, ii
Anesthesia and anesthesiology
Anesthesiology Patient Safety Foundation,i
Ben Kolb case, 8, 9
incident reporting and analysis,37
Anonymity (confidentiality),see Incident reporting
Aviation Safety Reporting System,38-41,52-61
cadre of analysts,39
costs of system,60
feedback to operational community, 39-40
immunity from regulatory action,40
importance of narratives,39,41-42
incident reporting and analysis,3-4
indexing scheme, 39
mid-air collisions and air traffic congestion,59
NASA internal opposition to,54-55
safety concerns transcending institutional
spoiler deflection incidents,55-56
stakeholder consensus building,39
VA patient safety reporting system and, iii
viability of the system,58-59
Behavioral adaptations, viii
hindsight,11-12,19, 20, 44
incident reporting system objectivity,56-57
Bilateral symmetry,see Surgery
Bile duct injuries,15-20
Blunt (environmental) end of systems, see
Organizational (blunt end) context;Systems
“Brittleness,” see Problem solving
bibliographic references to,62-71
contrasted with uncelebrated cases,35-36
error and media attention, i
first and second stories,9-11
media focus on,i,vii-viii
display of functions, 33
failure attributed to human error, 28, 29,31,34,35
instability during transport, 33-35
interface redesign,33, 34
manual control switch, 33
multiple,simultaneous use, 33
user-centered automation principles, 33
“visible” operational features,33
Error,see Failures; Human error
“Examining Errors In Health Care:Developing a
Prevention,Education and Research Agenda”
(October 1996,Annenberg Center for
Experience, see Expertise;Practitioners
computers and human,23,24,25
proactive incident reporting, 43
Experts, see Expertise;Pilots; Practitioners
Exploratory learning, see Learning
FAA,see US Federal Aviation Administration
Failures,see also Accidents;Incident reporting
and analysis;Operational (sharp end) context;
Second story; Systems
additional layers of defenses against,10
detection and recovery, 24, 25-26
easy tasks and,21
investigation of, 11, 13
lessons from non-health-care domains, 6
role of blunt end factors,13-14
single-point vs.sets of factors,13
sources of information, 9-11
successes and,related and compared,13,19-20, 36
system vulnerabilities to,viii, 2, 11
“unique, unusual,” as descriptions of, 44
wrong limb/site surgery,symmetry failure),9-11
Federal Aviation Administration, see US Federal
First story,see also Cases,celebrated;Failures;
Human error;Operational (sharp end)
deeper context of failures and success,3-4, 13,
kinds of stories told about accidents,vii-viii,9-11
stakeholder reaction and analysis,3
Florida “wrong leg” case, see King,Willie
Food and Drug Administration,see US Food and
Forms,misreading of data on and redesign of,
Gall bladder surgery,15-20
“Garden path” cases,22
Gargano case, 8, 65
Genetic research, 47
Genotypical patterns,see Incident reporting
Health care system,see also Stakeholders
current patient safety concerns, 5-6
stakeholders’ conflicting goals, 54-55
success and vulnerability,viii
Heart surgery, see Surgery
High-reliability organizations,see Organizational
(blunt end) context
Hindsight bias,see Bias
Human-computer interaction,see Computers
accident responsibility attributed to, 3, 10,44
celebrated medical cases,i,9
device-related incidents attributed to,34,35
first story and, vii, viii
foreclosure of further investigation,2,vii
infusion device failure,28,29,31,34,35
practitioners and blunt end factors,13-14
proximate causes, 10
second story hidden behind, 2, 35
Human-machine cooperation,see Computers;
Human performance,see Expertise;
Immunity, legal, see Law
Incident reporting and analysis,37-44
accidents compared with incidents,57
attribution of cause, 38
aviation industry (ASRS),3-4,38-41,53-62
belief in and characteristics of,37
cadre of analysts,39
classification of incidents,41-44,60,61
coded data fields,60
database, 39, 60
expertise in analysis,60
feedback to operational community, 39-40
Food and Drug Administration,33
funding and time constraints,52-53
“gaming” of the system (fatigue, jet lag, labor
health care complexity compared to aviation
human performance factors,38
immunity for those in the system 57
importance of narratives,39,41-42
independence, confidentiality of systems,
indexing scheme, 39, 41
legal considerations in limiting medical
link between accidents and incidents,38
mandatory reporting, 37, 53
objectivity and disinterest of system,56-57
phenotype vs.genotype, 9, 42, 43
safety improvements and,38
stakeholder consensus building 38,39,52,54-55
understanding details (narratives),55
Indexing,see Incident reporting and analysis
Infusion devices,see Equipment
Institutions,see Organizational (blunt end)
Investigations, see First story;Incident reporting
and analysis;Narratives; Research;
Judgment,see Decision making
King,Willie, (wrong leg case),7,8,9,10,62-63
Laboratory testing, 20-26
Laparoscopic cholecystectomy, 15-20
Latent failures,see Failures
celebrated medical cases and criminal
considerations in limiting medical reports,60-61
incident reporting systems and criminal
legal and regulatory responses to celebrated
computer critiquing and,23
failure rates and,44
high reliability organizations,44
Media attention,see Cases,celebrated
Medical accidents,see Accidents;Cases,
Medical devices,see Equipment
Narratives,see also Cases, celebrated; Cases,
uncelebrated;First story; Second story
importance of, in incident analysis,39,41-42,55
legal considerations to limit,60-61
loss of,in classification schemes,41-42
process and context of incidents,43
reports and device failures, 35
NASA (National Aeronautics and Space
Administration),see US National Aeronautics
and Space Administration
National Health Care Safety Council,ii, 3
National Patient Safety Foundation
conclusions from the workshop,45-47
workshop described,ii, iii, vii, 3, 4
workshop participants listed,50-51
New York doctor case, see Einaugler case
Nuclear power industry,Three Mile Island
Nurses (Colorado),route of administration
Operational (sharp end) context,see also
attributions of accident responsibility, 3, 10
physician order entry, performance, 1
sharp end of system described,13,14
Operator error,see Human error
Organizational (blunt end) context
behavioral changes, 18, 19
blunt and sharp ends of systems,13,14
Spoiler deflection (airplane incident),55-56
health care,and factors producing failure,6
health care,conflicting goals,54-55
incident reporting system success,59-60
reactions to and analysis of “first” stories,3
Stories see Cases,celebrated;Cases,uncelebrated;
First story; Narratives;Second story
difficult cases,decision making process,16-17
drug misadministration via computerized
inexperience and bile duct injury,16
judgment,uncertainty and risk assessments,
laparoscopic vs. open, 15-20
rule-based approach, 18
tradeoffs in decision making,17
wrong limb/site (symmetry failure),7,8,9,10
Symmetry failure, see Surgery
System failures,see Failures
Systems,see also Failures;Operational (sharp end)
context;Organizational (blunt end) context
adaptations and complexity, viii
blunt and sharp ends of,13-14
failures and successes related, 13, 19-20,36
health care complexity, 6
safety as a property (quality) of larger
uncovering second stories,36
A Tale of Two Cities, vii
Technology, see also Computers
changes in,and surgery,18-19
health care success and vulnerability, viii
use in problem solving,24-25
Therapeutic index,see Drugs
Three Mile Island nuclear accident,2, 5
Tutoring software,see Computers
Uncelebrated cases,see Cases,uncelebrated;
Uncertainty,see Decision making
University of Chicago,9
US Agency for Health Care Policy and Research,
US Federal Aviation Administration,54-55, 58-59
US Food and Drug Administration,33
US National Aeronautics and Space
US Veterans Affairs Department,ii-iii
User-centered automation principles, 33
User interaction with computers,see Computers
Veterans Affairs Department,see US Veterans