Surgical Checklists Save Lives In VA Hospitals

Rumors about patients being wheeled into surgery and coming out with the wrong foot amputated, or surgeons leaving tools inside patients, are in constant circulation. Rumors are usually based in some truth, however. A seemingly simple way to prevent these surgical errors is by using a checklist. Simple enough, right? A recent and very meticulous study found using a surgical checklist saved lives in Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) hospitals.

The study covered 74 VA hospitals using surgery checklists for 3  years, from 2006-2008. The result was an average 18% drop in surgery related deaths. Every team member created checklists before surgery. They then discussed them before, during, and after the procedure. This is a new concept as working as a team is not something that is generally done in a surgical room. While that isn’t something people want to think about before going into surgery, the standard operating procedure is a very strict hierarchy with the surgeon at the top controlling the room.

The surgical teams using the most teamwork had the lowest death rates, according to the study. Not having surgeons dominate the room will make for a dramatic change in how things have always been done. If it saves lives, however, then out with the old and in with the new. Almost all of the VA’s 130 surgery centers have adopted this checklist program since it’s inception in 2003.

The teamwork in the operating room includes the patient. Prior to being anesthetized, the patients say their name and identify the surgery they are undergoing. The staff then reads their individual checklists to the patients. Patients have the ability to voice any concerns they have with the procedure if something seems off or not right. Organizing operating rooms like this ensures everyone in the operating room has a hand in patient safety.

As the program becomes more ingrained in the VA system, hopefully operating room deaths and surgical errors will continue to decrease. The program also aided in uncovering severe problems at an Illinois VA hospital years ago. Conditions in that hospital are much better because of the surgery checklist program.