With Great Power Comes Great … Reliability

Hello again everyone! Your friendly neighborhood med student here, back with another clinical pearl from my hospital rotations. I usually keep a look-out for topics in clinical medicine that would be valuable learning experiences to share with you, my colleagues back in the lab. Last month I talked about the important cross-over between pathology and my current general surgery rotation.  This time around I’d like to discuss a topic that was brought up at the hospital’s in-house surgical mortality and morbidity meeting (M&M) on a recent Wednesday morning. (Side note: CNN Medical Correspondent, journalist, and Emory neurosurgeon Dr. Sanjay Gupta wrote a book on M&M meetings in 2012 called Monday Mornings. It was adopted as a TV series as well. The book was excellent, I highly recommend it! Some of you may remember that Dr. Gupta participated at the ASCP Annual Meeting in 2015 as a keynote speaker.) Aside from going over a few cases with reportable teaching moments and less-than-optimal outcomes, this M&M included an in-service on High Reliability Organizations (HROs) which really reflect a lot of parallels between working as a clinician, studying as a medical student, and working as a laboratory professional.

Image 1a-1b. Sanjay Gupta, MD and his 2012 medical novel with realistic depictions of mortality and morbidity conferences surgeons participate in. This process of reflection and analysis is both preventative of mistakes and errors, but also effective as a comprehensive assessment of pitfalls and gaps in reliability. M&M meetings are a critical part of surgical teams and a useful HRO tool. Pictured (right) is Dr. Gupta at the 2015 ASCP Annual Meeting in Long Beach, CA where he discussed the ever-evolving nature of healthcare and his time as a medical correspondent.

What is a High Reliability Organization?

HROs are teams or organizations which operate under stress to produce a certain outcome or product. There is usually a tensely critical environment in which this outcome occurs within and its accompanied by a complex hierarchy of personnel accompanied by technologically advanced equipment or skill-driven work. To imagine the best examples of HROs, think of situations where something that could go wrong must never happen: air traffic control at a major international hub, the engineering department at a critical dam/levy/channel lock, the safety department for a nuclear reactor in a power plant, mission control at NASA, and—of course—clinical environments which include everything from surgical teams to critical laboratories! Basically all of these entities operate with the odds stacked against them with high potential for catastrophe, but they do their best to avoid failure and maintain quality controls. Essentially, I argue that health care organizations and, especially laboratories, are high-level HROs.

Image 2. “Time Out’s” are called before every single surgical procedure. After a patient gets through various stages of clearance regarding fitness and appropriateness of surgery, the final step before that first incision is a time-out. This is a conference of review between nurses, anesthesiologists, OR scrub techs, medical students, circulation staff, and other inputs that would affect patient care. Details checked include patients’ names, MRNs, DOBs, procedure, locations, etc. Effective communication at all stages helps HROs achieve low error rates. (Photo: Mayo Clinic, Surgical Outcomes Program)

Connecting HROs, ASCP, and you…

I recently finished the Lab Management University (LMU) training offered by ASCP earlier this year. What I found interesting in many personnel-related modules was a mindfulness of the staff one might work with. This considered not just the skills, experience, or credentials that individuals may possess, but it also reflected their cultural background, communication preferences, potential talents or limitations, and insights into different points of view. Not only does LMU do a fantastic job exploring these personnel traits, it also turns the reflection inward to uncover possible biases one might have. This is mindfulness—a super trendy and upcoming philosophy of operating in the present with the full attention a moment deserves both personally and professionally. Mindfulness for the individual, the clinician, and the student are all great ways to center yourself as you encounter challenges. However, mindfulness for an organization takes on a different scope. What mindfulness does at an organizational level is essentially create an HRO: it creates a system in which reliability is created against adverse challenges in the setting of awareness, transparency, and complexity.

Image 3. High Reliability Organizations (HROs) are built on a foundation of mindfulness—the same mindfulness individuals practice for effective centering and decision-making acts as a tool for efficacy in organizations’ attempts at self-awareness and process improvement. Reducing error and operating at high performance levels are held up by five major pillars which address problem detection and problem management/resolution. (Source: BioRAFT™ Safety and Compliance Consulting, Cambridge, MA)

Let’s Walk through an HRO in action from the desk, to the surgical suite, and in the lab:

The foundation of HROs is rooted in that mindfulness. It acts as a guiding tool to focus the principles or HROs which contribute to reducing errors buy integrating rigorous protocols, cross-examining complex clinical tasks and critical functions, and securing complex decision making in dynamic and fast-paced environments.

The Five Major Pillars of High Reliability Organizations (HROs)
1. Preoccupation with failure

This is a critical tenet of HROs as they constantly evaluate vulnerability of a process for errors and pitfalls. Collective mindfulness turns the obsession of not wanting to fail into a useful way to be aware of possible challenges and address them proactively and effectively.

Surgical Teams Medical Students Laboratory Professionals
Surgical teams are always analyzing and reanalyzing how effective they are through M&M meetings and other metrics which reflect error rates. Near miss reporting acts as a functional model for proactive utilization of this mindful approach to improving outcomes. Med students are pro’s at being worried about failure; from board exams, to rotations, to performance in clinicals, and competing with other med students—it’s a strong motivator Labs are chock-full of dashboard metrics that delineate performance standards of equipment, materials, testing, and personnel. This often reflects itself in reimbursement, or administrative buy-in later.
2. Reluctance to simplify explanations

This is a tough one to understand. One would think simpler explanations of problems means an easier way to achieve a solution. But some problems are multi-faceted and complex, requiring different input from various sources/individuals. A balance must be achieved for efficiency’s sake.

Surgical Teams Medical Students Laboratory Professionals
While it may be tempting to want to reduce information to simple bullet points to get through more cases, each patient is different, and protocols must be addressed comprehensively and dynamically to identify best practice for each patient. There is a lot of input medical students are exposed to regarding knowledge intake. It can be overwhelming. Studying can be hard enough, but when your grades need a boost and “more” studying doesn’t help, it’s time to investigate new ways to put information into that hippocampus… How many times have you been asked, “Where are my results?” Identifying problems in TAT would be complex and require investigating a process in depth rather than dealing with blame shift from bad orders, to phlebotomy delay, transport delay, or even testing/reporting delays.
3. Sensitivity to operations

Being acutely aware of the processes involved in HRO-style decision making is critical. There is a reason for standardization and protocol wherein SOPs guide all staff to common output. Relying on this standardization is an effective way to insure success.

Surgical Teams Medical Students Laboratory Professionals
Time outs before surgery, protocols for various work-ups, and specific procedures regarding surgical interventions allow various clinicians to treat multiple patients with the same relative outcomes. Knowing how clinicals work and how to make them better allows opportunities for advancing not only your rotation, but future rotations. Standing up and owning ideas for operative improvement is great. Interdisciplinary bridges are effective tools for creating a culture of medical collaboration. Helping other clinicians understand the scope and tools available to them in the laboratory makes everyone’s job easier and safer.
4. Deference to expertise

In healthcare, a collaborative spirit allows more experienced clinicians to offer their expertise based on years of working and learning. Alongside this, concurrent literature is always looking at present-day standards and best practices. HROs rely on hierarchical models for decision-making.

Surgical Teams Medical Students Laboratory Professionals
Almost all surgeons are experts at something—just ask them! Joking aside, senior surgeons offer valuable insight on cases to junior residents. And combining experience with data in best practices improves outcomes dramatically. We are part of a medical system. We have knowledge that greener medical students might desperately need, and we also might be able to lend insight to senior attendings and teachers who were trained well before we were in school. That said, we defer to expertise a lot—we really know nothing, relatively speaking… The hierarchy of laboratory medicine lends itself to this pillar of HROs. Pathologists might helm the wheel of a particular lab, but there are section heads or experienced techs, or clinical managers who know the guts of testing and reporting that offer invaluable information for outcomes!
5. Commitment to resilience

This is at the heart of any clinical team. Medical error is a reality of the field we are in. Allowable medical error gives us some leeway, but ultimately, we hope to be error free for our patients. When mistakes do occur, it’s imperative to own up to them and use them as learning opportunities. When we do that, managers are thankful for not wasting resources on investigations, and we have the chance to quickly recover.

Surgical Teams Medical Students Laboratory Professionals
Mistakes happen. But failures should be rare. If events happen, they should be learned from. M&M meetings are great places for this to happen. Often times, surgical staff are pushed to the limits of abilities, hours in a day, demand of patient load, and of course response to trauma. We are archetypes of resilience. If we weren’t, we wouldn’t be wearing the short white coats. We constantly have to go through tests, checkpoints, and performance evaluations to make sure we can rise above and be responsible for our own clinical decisions tomorrow. There are errors because of instrumentation, errors because of quality control, and errors because, well, simply because. Sometimes the mistakes that occur in the lab despite binders of QC should represent teaching moments with staff re-training. (I’ve even made a few—but you bounce back and become better for it.)


Well, if you made it this far you certainly have a commitment to resilience! This stuff isn’t the most exciting but it’s what makes our healthcare system work. At the base of it all are the ancillary staff working with everyone up the ladder to the chief of surgery, from the medical student to the attending, from the medical lab scientists up to the pathologists. Every part of an HRO (especially in healthcare) is a part of a dynamic and growing entity. As long as we are all aware of our roles, our scopes, and our impacts, out patients will only benefit!

See you all next time!

Post script: listen to the latest podcast in a series by a colleague and me where we discuss clinical stories and pearls of wisdom through medical school. These audio sessions are part of LectureKeepr an online resource for medical students, made by medical students. Check them out here: LectureKeepr. As the sessions relate to my posts here on Lablogatory I’ll include a link—this post will focus more in depth on what I presented here regarding HROs.



–Constantine E. Kanakis MSc, MLS (ASCP)CM graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a BS in Molecular Biology and Bioethics and then Rush University with an MS in Medical Laboratory Science. He is currently a medical student actively involved in public health and laboratory medicine, conducting clinicals at Bronx-Care Hospital Center in New York City.

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