Quality, Checklists, Patient Education, the TV Show ER, and Comparative Effectiveness

In case you missed it last week, amidst all the returning stars for one of the final episodes of the TV show ER, there was a dramatic Operating Room scene where Dr. Benton (played by Eric Lasalle) is “observing” the kidney transplant of Dr. John Carter (played by Noah Wyle), because as we see, the transplant surgeon is a very coarse and roughshod individual.  The significance of the scene is that as the surgery is about to begin, Dr. Benton pulls out his  pre-surgical checklist and browbeats the transplant surgeon into going through it – during which the nurses note their concern that they don’t have reperfusion solution in the OR, so they go and get some as the surgery starts.  Since this is TV, this turns out to be crucial when the kidney develops a clot, and a delay in getting the solution could have meant the difference between success and failure of the kidney transplant.  (Note – this connection may be taking a bit of artistic/entertainment license, but the point is that delays in having needed equipment or supplies can effect the quality of care.)

While Atul Gawande has written about such checklists in the New Yorker magazine, perhaps this fictional medical TV drama will help more people understand the importance of such quality improving steps, and even encourage them to start asking their doctors and hospitals if they use these types of quality improving checklists….. And if not, why not?

Physicians’ Perspectives
The next day I was talking with a physician friend, and mentioned the episode.  I was both bemused and concerned that he said all the staff is his outpatient clinic were talking about the returning stars, and nobody had mentioned the checklist scene.  We then talked about how physicians often think the way they do things is the best, yet generally lack any data to show how well they are really doing.  We agreed that physicians have traditionally viewed checklist etc,  as “cookbook” medicine that took away their autonomy.  I pointed out that while this might be true on a very microscopic level, by systematizing what they routinely do in a way that improves outcomes, they can then focus their knowledge and skill onto the unique aspects of each patient’s needs.

This is similar to what a basic science researcher once told me about golf. (He is a near scratch golfer.)  He told me that since the game has so many variables, more of them that you can eliminate the better you will perform.  For example, always playing with the same clubs is obvious, but for the same reason you should also play with the same brand and type of ball and glove, and develop standard pregame and preshot routines.  That way, you can focus on the variables you can’t control, such as the weather, the wind, the lie of the ball, etc.  The same is true for clinical care.  By standardizing the routine and repetitive actions according to protocols that have been shown to work well, clinicians can focus on what is variable and important.  (This is also why I always keep the same set of things in one pocket: keys, chapstick, two blue pens, one red pen, and my migraine medicine. And why I always leave my keys, wallet, sunglasses, etc. at same place at home.  That way I never have to spend time looking for things I use all the time.)

Collecting and analyzing data about individual physician performance is really going to be the next significant development in health reform and quality improvement.  And it is already occurring in some places – such as within the health benefits program for Massachusetts government employees.

This data collection, analysis and reporting will be similar to what is being done for hospitals, and thus will follow the trend of taking technologies out of the hospital and using them in the outpatient world.  However, as with all healthcare data analysis. the major challenge will be in adequately adjusting for patient differences so that physician performance is based upon realistically achievable outcomes rather than the severity of the patient’s underlying illnesses.  (The limits of such risk adjustment have hindered the usefulness of hospital quality data reporting.)

Comparative Effectiveness
The recent stimulus legislation included $1.1 billion for comparative effectiveness research.  Greater federal funding in this area has raised concerns among some people in the medical research industry because this research could focus on comparing one medicine to another, or a medicine to a device, etc. without adequate risk adjustment in the research – and then be used by insurance companies and government agencies to make coverage and payment decisions.  And these concerns are legitimate because using such analysis and research for coverage decisions about medicines and devices has been done in countries such as England and Australia.

However, there is also an opportunity for comparative effectiveness research to be used to improve actual clinical practices by developing a broader array of checklists and other standardized protocols.  This is part of the promise of electronic medical records, since they can easliy incorporate such standardized guidelines into their formatting.  But from what I can tell, each brand and type of EMR/EHR has different standardizations and guidelines, and the way they display them can cause clinicians to quickly suffer from “alert fatigue,” so that eventually clinicians ignore all the suggestions and warnings – making them worse then nothing.

Aside from the technical issues of EMRs, the systemic challenge for successfully using comparative effectiveness to improve clinical care in this way is overcoming the resistance and fear of physicians. This factor almost ended the existence of the federal Agency for Healthcare Quality and Research, because its first major project, (when it was called the Agency for Health Care Policy and Research), found that surgery for low back pain was generally not indicated.  This conclusion caused such a reaction in the medical community that Congress almost stopped funding the entire agency.


  • Innovations that are being used in hospitals will be increasingly used in outpatient clinics and private practices.
  • These innovations will not only be technologies, such as diagnostic tests, but also methods of care, such as standardized checklists and protocols.
  • Using comparative effectiveness research to develop and validate the ability of such standardization to improve outcomes, will have greater effects on increasing quality of care and controlling costs than will research comparing different treatment options for individual diseases – even for very common and costly conditions like diabetes and CHF.  This will be true because even if such research shows which treatments are best, if clinicians aren’t following these recommendations in standardized ways, the value of this knowledge for patients and the healthcare system will be dramatically diminished.
  • Including physicians, other clinicians, and other stakeholders in the development and implementation of standardized practices will be critically important for their successful adoption and use – because as was seen in the dramatization in the ER episode, big personalities of individuals can overshadow, subvert or sidestep the proper use of standardized practices so that they may be followed in substance, but ignored in spirit.

2 thoughts on “Quality, Checklists, Patient Education, the TV Show ER, and Comparative Effectiveness

  1. Pingback: Health Policy and Communications Blog » Blog Archive » Checklists and Physicians’ Behaviors

  2. Pingback: Health Policy and Communications Blog » Blog Archive » Communicating with Clinicians to Improve Quality

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