It’s time to stop comparing healthcare with the airline industry

For decades now, we’ve heard politicians, senior healthcare officials and industry commentators sing the praises of the airline industry. They say the NHS can learn a few things in how it uses technology to improve travel safety and customer experience.

This has been the inspiration behind a new ‘airline style’ safety film which provides advice to patients about their stay in hospital. The film aims to reduce avoidable complications such as blood clots and falls with reminders on simple things patients can do to help. As part of the film’s launch, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt reiterated how the airline industry leads the way on safety.

I hope the film is welcomed by healthcare professionals. It is a very practical way of communicating with patients about how they can manage their health throughout a hospital visit, and help with their recovery. It is a good example of how technology can help improve the patient experience.

There are however still questions about how the NHS uses technology and in particular, data, compared to the airline industry.

Andy Williams, the chief executive of the Health and Social Care Information Centre, says the healthcare industry is “probably the least penetrated by modern data and information”, citing the ease at which consumers can purchase a flight to the difficulty in arranging a medical appointment.

The National Information Board’s recent Personalised Health and Care 2020 framework would seem to agree. “In the airline industry, 70% of flights are booked online and 71% of travellers compare more than one website before purchasing,” it states.

Whilst we can safely say any comparable statistic is not matched in healthcare, the NHS is showing its ambition to try to make the most of the data it holds with the launch of its myNHS website. This promises transparency, which can enable choice; but the lofty heights of customer self-service seem some way off yet.

Are the differing approaches to technology adoption to blame for the constant comparisons between both industries?

The previous Choose and Book system is an example of how difficult it is to deploy technology which offers more convenience to patients. The concept was originally positioned as an ‘airline-style booking’ to the NHS. A decade of delays later, it is now to be imminently launched as the NHS e-referral service.

Standards for medicine and clinical information are another area fraught with complexity and risk. Just look at SNOMED CT, the standard for clinical terms. This was first released in January 2002. Only now is it being endorsed by the National Information Board in a move to adopt a single clinical terminology by December 2016.

Is it all about the technology though? Not necessarily. It’s about culture too. Ask Martin Bromiley. He is an airline pilot who set up the Clinical Human Factors Group following the death of his wife during a routine sinus hospital operation.

He argues that human factors play a huge part in how safe people are. For example, a pilot’s priority is always safety. Can the same be said for surgeons? Pilots are responsible for everyone’s safety. Targets are secondary. Surgeons are part of a wider team in which any individual can have a significant impact on a patient’s safety. More humans means more human error.

The airline industry understands that ‘human factors’ are said to cause 75% of accidents. As a result, planes are built around people’s needs. Have healthcare IT systems truly been written with end users in mind?

Technology has always been a help or a hindrance. The response in the recent NIB framework recognises this, and states that “human interaction will always be at the heart of health and care, but that interaction can be better informed, more efficient and better organised if supported by data and technology services”.

Many will agree. But with the use of technology and data some way off, does healthcare have its head in the clouds and will it ever catch up with the airline industry?

The chairman of the inquiry into the Mid-Staffs scandal Robert Francis QC said the NHS is so unsafe that if it were an airline “planes would fall out of the sky all the time”. Both industries are very different and almost incomparable, especially in terms of safety. Clinicians will always have varying pressures. Safety is one of those. Decision-making is simply not straightforward.

Targets and aspirations are important. They provide something to work towards. But maybe we should focus more on building on some of the success stories within our own industry rather than looking to other industries that are very different in their structure, governance and funding.

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