Thoughts from a Time Out observer

Aaron Oswald, a premedical student from Cornell University and student in the Urban Semester program during Summer 2012, wrote the following narrative about his observations of Time Outs at Woodhull:

Regardless of official policies and guidelines, the tacit culture in the hospital remains the strongest force in determining whether Time Outs will be conducted. These understandings exist within a strong hierarchy, and thus are determined primarily by physicians. With or without an attending physician, team members often don’t feel comfortable acting contrary to the status quo, even if that means following official policies.

The Time Out Project provides premedical and medical students the opportunity to educate staff about Time Outs in a non-threatening way. By pitching a research study that promises not to judge individuals, I was able to persuade staff to think about their success with safety measures. Regardless, a student observer advocating for Time Outs is put in an awkward position, where he or she must play both bureaucratic and scholarly roles. Premedical and medical students generally take only scholarly roles, discussing but never openly challenging providers. Therefore, an instant baseline of tension develops when providers realize their student is observing and advocating for Time Outs. Yet, when the study is appropriately communicated to staff, they often respond positively, and are willing to work with students to incorporate Time Outs into their practice.

Aaron makes a couple very good points, about Time Out and what really determines whether these checklists are done. Last year, the Washington Post reported that despite the evidence base on the efficacy of Time Out, e.g. surgical safety checklists, to prevent error, there has been virtually no improvement in wrong-site surgeries, and the Joint Commission states that based on state data, the rate of wrong-site surgeries is 40 a week (June 2011). Mark Chassin, a former New York state health commissioner and since 2008 president of the Joint Commission, said he thinks such errors are growing in part because of increased time pressures, and involves changing the culture of hospitals and getting doctors to follow standardized procedures and work in teams. Doctors typically prize their autonomy, resist checklists and underestimate their propensity for error.

Aaron also addresses the unique role of students in this project. I believe that students are an underutilized resource in hospitals, and in the Time Out project we place them in a challenging situation; yet these students, future leaders in quality, have performed beautifully in spite of the challenges! As a result, we have about 80 observations of Time Out, and an ongoing dialogue that has been created and will expand, beginning with these observations in the clinical setting.

The Time Out project aims to create culture change, which includes learning how to implement Time Out effectively. This includes an acknowledgement of how things are done now – through observations of Time Out in the current environment – and then testing out strategies. Thus, we are rolling out two types of Time Out trainings – video and simulation – in the clinical setting. These trainings are designed to be quick and on-the-spot. We have just trained a new class of Cornell Urban Semester students this week to be observers.

And we look forward to training our next class of awesome St. George’s University medical students in this work as well! These medical students are veterans, since they — and their previous classes of peers — have been observing Time Out at Woodhull, one class after another, since February 2010.

Looking forward to seeing what this year’s observations and training will bring.