Minivan, Major Lesson


I recently visited my parents in my ancestral home of Wisconsin. As parents of a certain age, they inexplicably are genetically predisposed to owning a minivan. Another quirk of their DNA is that they must own a new minivan. No sooner has the last wisp of new-car smell osmosed from the burled walnut interior than they are trading up to the newest, tricked-out minivan. Perhaps more puzzling is the manner of pride they display in their minivan.

Now, my dad, as if not readily apparent, is not cool. And to see him folded into the driver’s seat, his furry-ear-to-furry-ear grin signaling a self-satisfaction customarily reserved for his grandchildren, painstakingly recounting glory-day stories and 4:30 p.m. dinner buffets, further solidifies his place in the Annals of Uncool.

When I’m home, they tend to employ my chauffeur services (most likely in retribution for my peri-pubescent years), and on the first day back home, I stopped their newest ride near the back door of the house, foot idling on the brake while this exchange occurred: “That’s a fascinating story about how much more challenging the world was when you were my age, Dad. You are a true American hero. Would you like to get out here or in the garage?”

As hospitalists, the hospital is our tapestry, our system of care, our responsibility. Few others are as well-positioned to ensure that the systems that envelop our patients are highly functional, reliable, and safe.

“Here,” he replied.

“OK, then get out,” I countered.

“I can’t,” he responded knowingly.

“Why not?” I queried, the patience seeping from my voice.

“Because the door’s not open,” he answered, seemingly mocking me.

“Then open it,” I replied, silently recounting the evidence for his institutionalization.

“I can’t,” he responded.

“Why not?” I replied again, this time calculating the likelihood that I was adopted.

“Because it’s locked,” came his retort.

“Then unlock it,” I answered, reconfirming my decision to move away for college.

“I can’t,” he replied, ostensibly encouraging parenticide.

“Why not?” I queried, strongly contemplating parenticide.

“Because you haven’t put the car in park,” he responded triumphantly.

A System So Safe

As a safety feature, the minivan needed to be in park before you could open the door to exit. I’ve never heard of anyone actually falling out of a moving car, but recollecting high school, I can fathom the right mix, type, and number of teenagers where possibility would meet inevitability. But, apparently, enough people are falling out of moving vehicles that car engineers have built a system that is so safe, this can’t happen. So no matter how hard someone tries, it just isn’t possible to fall out of a moving car (believe me, toward the end of a week of my father’s car stories, my mind had worked every possible angle).

Likewise, newer vehicles employ occupant-sensitive sensors that detect the weight, size, and position of the passenger to determine if the airbag should deploy. Rather than depending on the driver to turn the passenger-side airbag on or off, the car does it for you: heavy enough to trigger the sensor, and the airbag will deploy; too light, and the car assumes you are a child and doesn’t deploy. It’s a system that is so safe because it doesn’t depend on the operator to get it right.

Ditto motion sensors that detect objects behind the car while reversing (avoiding accidental back-overs), antilock brakes (to maintain control during panicked braking), traction control (improves stability during acceleration), electronic stability control (foils spinouts), tire-pressure-monitoring systems (avoids blowouts), daytime running lights (ensures others see you), rollover airbags (they stay inflated to keep you in the car), lane-departure warning (alerts you if you stray from your lane), and doors that automatically lock after the car starts (again, falling out of cars).

For all the negative press of late, car manufacturers understand safety.

A System Not So Safe

Contrast this to healthcare, in which 10% of patients will suffer a serious, preventable, adverse event during their hospital stay.1 Read that sentence again. That’s 10%; that’s preventable; that’s a number that has largely remained unchanged in the past decade. If 1 in 10 drivers suffered a serious adverse preventable auto accident, Congress would do nothing but hold automotive safety hearings.

In medicine, we still largely employ unsafe systems in which even the best doctors can, and do, hurt patients. Sure, we have made strides in this arena (oxygen tubing that only works if hooked up properly, smart pumps that avert IV dosing errors, CO2 monitors to detect proper endotracheal tube placement), but remarkably, in this era of patient safety, we still utilize systems that largely depend on the heroism of the individual.

As physicians, we are famously autonomous and value our professional independence, even to the degree that it might harm patients. We generally eschew standardization, believing that each patient is inherently different. In fact, the thrill of the improvisational theater that follows every patient’s chief compliant is one of the great satisfiers in medicine. We love that feeling that comes from sleuthing each case, deftly enacting a plan of action to shepherd the patient to health.

To suggest following protocols, guidelines, and checklists is derisively dismissed as “cookbook medicine.” To work in teams in which certain tasks are delegated to others is seen as weakness—we don’t need a system that utilizes a pharmacist; rather, we should know the doses of all medicines, their interactions, and the effect of renal and liver impairment on their clearance. To suggest otherwise is an insult to our Oslerian roots. To examine our errors, our system breakdowns, our patient harms is anathema to our practice, an admission of failure.

The result is that most of us continue to toil in systems that have become exponentially unsafe as healthcare has become more complex. Today, we still have a system that will more or less allow us to kill a patient by doing nothing more than forgetting the letter “g.” I can go to my hospital today and intend to write “4 grams of magnesium sulfate (MgSO4)” and inadvertently forget the “g” in “Mg.” This could result in an order for a lethal dose of morphine sulfate (MSO4). It’s that easy to hurt a patient. Now, you might say that would never happen, because the pharmacy would catch it. And this is likely. But is it guaranteed? Can you 100% ensure it wouldn’t happen? Consider that nearly 20% of medication doses administered in a hospital are done so incorrectly.2 Nearly 1 in 5. This is the type of system we are employing to stop this lethal overdose. Is this system, which depends on another human to prevent an error, foolproof, or just a snare waiting to prove you the fool?

This represents our opportunity. As hospitalists, the hospital is our tapestry, our system of care, our responsibility. Few others are as well-positioned to ensure that the systems that envelop our patients are highly functional, reliable, and safe. This will take work—work that will feel burdensome, underappreciated, undercompensated. And, fully recognizing that none of us went into medicine to become systems engineers, this will be hard.

However, if not us, who? Who will ensure that our fathers, our mothers, our children will be as safe in the hospital as they are on the drive to the hospital? TH

Dr. Glasheen is associate professor of medicine at the University of Colorado Denver, where he serves as director of the Hospital Medicine Program and the Hospitalist Training Program, and as associate program director of the Internal Medicine Residency Program.


  1. Global health leaders join the World Health Organization to announce accelerated efforts to improve patient safety. World Health Organization website. Available at: www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2004/pr74/en/. Accessed Feb. 14, 2011.
  2. Barker KN, Flynn EA, Pepper GA, Bates DW, Mikeal RL. Medication errors observed in 36 health care facilities. Arch Intern Med. 2002;162(16):1897-1903.

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