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Operating room checklists reduce post-surgical deaths

Checklists are a basic tool that humans have learned to use well, in numerous situations.

They help people get everything ready for vacations, and they help your mechanic make sure that all the critical points on your car have been inspected. They keep you from overlooking deductions on your taxes. You may even use one to make sure your preschooler has everything needed for the first week of school. Checklists are simple, handy and used just about everywhere -- except in most surgical rooms.

New research out of Harvard suggests, however, that using a checklist in the operating room could have a major effect when it comes to reducing the number of post-surgical deaths. In fact, the South Carolina hospitals that participated in the study ended up reducing their post-surgical deaths by an incredible 22 percent -- saving roughly 100 lives.

How could the lowly checklist be that useful in the operating room? It's simple: Patients die all the time because of preventable surgical errors -- things like operating on the wrong kidney (or wrong patient), leaving a surgical towel folded up in someone's chest or forgetting to make sure that the patient gets prophylactic antibiotics when needed.

The checklist used in the study asked the surgical team to look at 19 items like those above and took about three minutes to perform. It was modeled after checklists used by pilots and was designed by the lead researcher for the study -- who also happens to be a surgeon.

Amazingly enough, although the checklist was designed to address basic safety issues and improve communication, surgical teams weren't terribly impressed with the idea. They thought that it would simply slow down surgery. Now that the checklists have proven themselves, they've been widely accepted -- although they still aren't always used.

Patient advocacy groups say that this simple, everyday idea has been one of the first things to successfully reduce preventable medical errors in the operating room. They even recommend that patients inquire as to whether or not their surgical team is using a checklist prior to consenting to treatment.

No patient should have to suffer just because a surgical team was too busy (or too self-assured) to run through a quick checklist designed to catch basic mistakes. If you or someone you loved suffered a preventable surgical error, please visit our web pages on the topic.

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