Checklists: Homer Simpson’s Moment of Clarity on Medical Quality

Accountants do it – Attorneys do it – Why Not Docs?

By Dr. David Edward Marcinko; MBA, CPHQ, CMP™insurance-book2

Like the Nike slogan, hospitals should just do-it! Make checklists, that is! A new report by the Associated Press, on January 15, 2009, suggests simple checklists might improve medical quality and save hospitals $15 billion a year.  

NEJM Study

The study was led by Atul Gawande MD, now a Harvard surgeon and medical journalist, and just published in the New England Journal of Medicine [NEJM]. The 19-item checklist, used in the study, was far more detailed than what is required for most institutions. In summary, doctors who followed a checklist of steps cut death rates from surgery, almost in half, and complications by more than a third in a large study on how to avoid blatant operating room mistakes.

The Checklist

The 19 point surgical checklist was developed by the World Health Organization [WHO] and includes common sense, and inexpensive, measures like these two:

  • Prior to the patient being given anesthesia, make sure relevant anatomy is marked, and everyone knows if the patient has an allergy.
  • After surgery, check that all the needles, sponges and instruments are accounted for.
  • Before the checklist was introduced, 1.5 percent of patients in a comparison group died within 30 days of surgery at eight hospitals. Afterward, the rate dropped to 0.8 percent — a 47 percent decrease. Duh; as Homer Simpson might say! Not exactly rocket science; is it?

Skeptics Exist

However, Dr. Peter Pronovost – a Johns Hopkins University researcher in my hometown of Baltimore – led a highly influential checklist study a few years back on cutting infection rates from various intravenous tubes. He was a skeptic of this study because the researchers collected their own data and acknowledged the possibility that results were partly skewed because folks perform better when observed.

A Next-Gen Quality Proponent

I have been a fan of Atul since his medical school and surgical training days as a resident at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. I even cited him as a precocious young up-start in the preface of my book, Insurance and Risk Management Strategies for Physicians and Advisors. His own works, of course, are best-sellers: Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science, and Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance. In fact, I often posit that he is a leading example of next-gen quality gurus, following in the foot-steps of Robert Wachter MD before him, and John E. Wennberg MD, MPH of the Dartmouth Atlas, before Bob.

My Experiences

Yet, far too many medical quality issues are being blindly addressed with powerful information technology systems. But, do we really need RFID tags to ensure proper side surgery, or bar codes bracelets for newborns? For example, while a medical student from Temple University back in the late seventies, I was observing surgery during an orthopedic rotation and noted the wrong extremity had been prepped and draped, awaiting the surgeons’ incision. Luckily, my big mouth was an advantage at the time. Decades later, at birth, I helped deliver my own daughter and immediately splashed a (far-too-large) swatch of gentian-violet on her left heel as an identifier; cheap … effective … simple. It did horrify the youngish nursing staff, but not so the more mature PICU staff. These, and related issues, might be alleviated with some managerial common sense; along with a dose of mindset change.


With the Obama administration about to spend massive amounts of money on eHRs and other sophisticated – but largely unproven and non inter-operable HIT systems – medical quality improvement measures; perhaps it’s time to take a breath, think and KISS! 

Most medical practices, clinics and hospitals ought not [should not] operate at full capacity, and maybe the best patient care is driven by demand (needs) – and not the supply driven (wants) of administrators, doctors, stockholders and private [physician owned] hospitals and/or other stakeholders. Still, financial advisors do-it, automobile mechanics do-it; so why don’t docs and hospitals do it… the checklist-thing?


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4 Responses

  1. Dear Dr. Marcinko,

    Nice article; I found this elsewhere as I thought of your post.

    Last month’s New England Journal of Medicine [NEJM] included another astounding checklist study, an international extravaganza that found nearly 50% reductions in mortality and complications after implementation of pre-and post-op surgical safety checklists.


    Dr. Joseph


  2. The Operating Room

    The SCOAP (Surgical Care and Outcomes Assessment Program) Checklist Initiative.

    This video demonstrates the use of a surgical safety checklist. Produced by Talaria, Inc. in Seattle, WA for the University of Washington Medical Center. For more information visit




  3. DO-H

    It seems the British Medical Association had a Homer Simpson moment a few years ago; but not over checklists.

    At about the same time – The Royal College of General Practitioners had a double dose of Homer Simpson moments. What about? … Euthanasia.



  4. Checklists for FAs?

    I went to an estate planning attorney, a few years ago who, is a friend. He used a checklist. The airline industry uses them, too. New age physicians, like Atul Gawande MD, also promote them in clinical medicine.

    And, I have been an advocate of checklists for medical practices, and hospital administration, as well.

    So, why have the least educated among us, like many FAs, eschew them?

    Any thoughts?

    Dr. David Edward Marcinko MBA


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