See the latest coronavirus and vaccine informationLearn about the Lancaster General Hospital Emergency Department expansion and related traffic changes.

Sorry, Star Trek fans. The all-powerful Captain Kirk might not be the best role model when it comes to leadership.

Patient safety advocate John Nance shared lessons from the aviation industry in a recent speech at Lancaster General Hospital.

Patient safety advocate, best-selling author and former pilot John Nance shared that observation with a crowd of LG Health physicians, nurses and administrators in a speech at Lancaster General Hospital last month.

Nance also shared a sobering statistic: 440,000 patients die every year due to medical mistakes. He advocates applying lessons and techniques from the aviation industry – a former bastion of the Captain Kirk leadership model – to improve patient safety.

“We have a prophylaxis that works,” Nance said. “We know it works, and you’re already doing it. It’s called communication and teamwork.” 

The U.S. aviation industry looked inward after a series of high-profile accidents and found that human error was most often to blame. Building systems to correct mistakes before they become catastrophic – mainly improving communication and cooperation – greatly improved its safety record.

“Aviation is a human organization facing a threat that was massive and real,” Nance said. “They handled it because they learned to cooperate.”

The health-care industry is working toward an identical goal of zero errors. Getting there will require two things, he said: a true collegial, interactive team, and an understanding of how and why we fail. That starts with accepting that no human being – yes, including you -- can be perpetually perfect.

“Making a mistake doesn’t mean you’re a bad doctor,” Nance said. “It means you’re human. If you press human beings far enough, you eventually will have very bad outcomes that are avoidable.”

Once we acknowledge our limitations and vulnerabilities, we can create processes and protocols to address them. Even a seemingly omnipotent, infallible leader like Captain Kirk can’t singlehandedly prevent every potential error. Keeping patients safe takes teamwork and communication.

Every team member plays a valuable role, and the best leaders inspire everyone to contribute their best effort. Together, the team creates an environment where no one is afraid to speak up if they feel something is wrong.

“If you want a true team, you have to take the extra time to build relationships,” Nance said. “You want to empower the quietest of individuals on the team to speak up. Building that trust is everyone’s task.”

Teaching a traditionally hierarchical system to eliminate barriers to open communication can be challenging, he said. It often involves empowering and encouraging the people who are least qualified or experienced to jump in the pilot’s seat and take over. 

And like any change, that can be difficult to accept.

“Do you know the most dangerous phrase in medicine?” Nance said. “It’s ‘This is the way we’ve always done it.’ ”

  • LG Health users can watch a recording of John Nance’s speech on StarNet.

Share This Page: