The time for checklists in medicine…is NOW!

I have written about checklists in medicine before, but in light of a recent publication in the New England Journal of Medicine, I was inspired again to write about it.

One of the leading advocates for checklists in medicine is Atul Gawande. His book “The Checklist Manifesto” is an excellent read for anyone interested in the topic and definitely well written for the lay-person. Notably he’s also the senior author on this randomized trial just published in NEJM. And while the NEJM is often busy publishing some questionably biased and often pharma-funded studies, this one deserves attention. But before I discuss more about the trial…I digress…

Just this week, while we were flying I observed something quite interesting. Typically when we fly in the helicopters, our pilots ask our crewman for landing checks. At which point the crewman will go through the checklist with the pilot answering appropriately. We were out on a job and the crewman was busy in the back of the machine so the pilot read the checklist himself. After each item on the list, the pilot would answer himself….basically talking to himself. I remember asking a pilot about the value of a checklist for both their critical and non-critical procedures. He told me that by doing a checklist, he could concentrate on the variables that may arise and not worry about forgetting something small or routine. This is interesting…

I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen a physician read off a checklist, answering to themselves that all everything required is present and functional.  In medicine, we have this idea that if we can’t remember everything then it’s a sign of weakness. We don’t use checklists. In our minds “checklists are for losers” (not sure who I’m quoting here). But this idea that we must remember everything during a critical event is unique to medicine. Obviously I’m not advocating that we shouldn’t commit anything to memory but why bother trying to remember mundane items when we should be concentrating on “owning the resuscitation” (A term coined by Cliff Reid from

We should instead focus on identifying why the patient is crashing or what might make this particular intubation difficult. We should NOT be trying to remember whether we’re missing anything… “ok…so I have the BVM, suction, tube…anything I’m missing? Of course! We need RSI drugs!”…this is a useless conversation and waste of time. By using a checklist the cue for RSI drugs will happen and the focus can be on more important things like ensuring the patient is well positioned, critically evaluating the cause for clinical deterioration – then the clinician can focus on real problem solving.

It’s interesting that many of the HEMS services out there are using RSI checklists and yet few are used in EDs around the world. At our HEMS service, we use it because we work in often hectic conditions that can be quickly become uncontrolled situations with unstable patients…wait a second…that sounds remarkably like an ED around the world! So why not implement a similar protocol? A recent paper in J Trauma looked at a standardized approach to RSI in trauma…seems promising!

And as I mentioned above, the NEJM recently published a large randomized trial evaluating the use of checklists for high-fidelity crisis simulation in an operating room setting. The use of checklists resulted in a 75% reduction to adhere to critical steps in management. Most impressively, the difference in missing critical steps was 6% with checklists vs. 23% without checklists. That’s an absolute reduction of 17%! And a relative risk reduction after multivariate analysis of 28%. If there was ever a drug trial that showed similar results it would likely be put in the water (maybe fluoride?). But last time I checked, no one will be making much money by producing a checklist. And yet despite our inability to show much more than non-inferiority with new oral anti-coagulants (vs. warfarin), the increase in use is HUGE!

This figure below published in the article is impressive. It demonstrates how the same team behaved completely differently depending on the use of a checklist. Some of the instances where they failed to adhere to critical processes of care is unbelievable and certainly is NOT good for patient oriented outcomes! V.fib and no defib for 1.5min? WOW!

Prime example of how checklists can help during resuscitations! Published in NEJM

Prime example of how checklists can help during resuscitations! Published in NEJM

I agree that we should probably study the implementation of a checklist into emergency medicine…but we probably shouldn’t wait longer. Recent publications show adverse event rates (or near misses) of 10% during RSI in the ED. This is NOT acceptable. We can do better and we should do better. Time for checklists to become an integral part of our critical actions. We can assign the checklist to be administered by our resuscitation room safety officer (yes, another novel concept that also deserves consideration…check out Cliff Reid’s great blog post on the topic)