Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Risky Business: James Bagian—NASA astronaut turned patient safety expert—on Being Wrong - By Kathryn Schulz

Thanks to Peter for passing this along.

In the weeks after I launched this series, several readers e-mailed me to suggest that I interview a man named James Bagian. When I began looking into his background, it became clear to me why: Name a high-stakes industry, and odds are Bagian has been involved in trying to make it safer. He is, among other things, an engineer, an anesthesiologist, a NASA astronaut (he was originally scheduled to be on the fatal Challenger mission), a private pilot, an Air Force-qualified freefall parachutist, and a mountain rescue instructor. And then there's his current job: director of the Veteran Administration's National Center for Patient Safety. In that capacity, Bagian is responsible for overseeing the reduction and prevention of harmful medical mistakes at the VA's 153 hospitals.

Given that most of us are far more likely to find ourselves in a health clinic than a space shuttle, it's sobering to hear Bagian compare the overall attitude toward error in his various fields. "If you look at the percent of budget we spend on safety activity in healthcare versus, say, nuclear power or aviation or the chemical industry, it's not even close," he told me. "Granted, that's just one metric, and I'm not saying money is the be-all end-all. But if people in industry look at what happens in healthcare, they say, ‘Man, this doesn't look like anything we recognize.'" In the below interview, Bagian and I talk about how to make medicine safer, why he doesn't like the word "error," and what it was like to dodge the Challenger bullet.