Why It Matters
Because health and health care need improvement.
Processing ...

Not Just Great Ideas: The Surgical Safety Checklist and the ICU Walker

By IHI Open School | Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Eva Luo, an Open School learner and an MD/MBA candidate, wrote the following post for the IHI Open School blog about the power of using checklists and re-designing processes to improve care. You can learn more about system redesign, quality improvement, and patient safety with online modules (free for students, residents, and faculty!) in the IHI Open School.

Never underestimate the power of a checklist...

I'm a last minute packer. I usually don't open my suitcase and fill it until the night before I leave for a trip. Sometimes, I only give myself an hour before I have to bolt out the door. Because I tend to over-pack, bringing at least one extra set of clothes for unexpected events, forgetting something in the chaos of my packing process happens easily and often. After forgetting my cell phone charger, my headphones, my jump drive, my blue jacket, my laptop sleeve, a DVD, my tooth brush, and many other miscellaneous important items on various trips, I decided that I had to create a checklist.

I opened up Word and created a checklist that so far, has helped tremendously. Ever since I've created it, I haven't forgotten anything! 

Years of psychological and human factors research have proven that we are fallible (Learn more in PS 102: Human Factors and Safety). As hard as we try or hate to admit it, human errors are bound to happen. So, why pretend it never happens? Especially when some kinds of forgetting endanger others and can lead to dire consequences. Several industries have transformed themselves with human errors in mind. The airline industry is a favorite example. As a result of air craft design, regulation, the use of checklists, and other systems designs, we are almost guaranteed to reach our final destination safely. According to data collected between 2000 and 2005, the chances of a fatality on a US airline flight was one in 22.8 million (1).

Health care is slowly following in the footsteps of the airline industry. Several interventions from preventing central line infections to preventing pressure ulcers capture best practices and allow for measurement of progress -- all to achieve desired results. 

At IHI's 20th Annual National Forum, Don Berwick and Atul Gawande made an announcement about the enormous potential of the WHO Surgical Safety Checklist to save lives. A paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine, suggests that implementation of the checklist can reduce inpatient complications and prevent deaths. In a one year pilot study conducted in eight locations from across the world, inpatient complications were reduced from 11% to 7% and the rate of death declined from 1.5% to 0.8%.

Here are some more numbers: It is estimated that 234 million operations are performed globally every year. With the observed reduction in inpatient complications and deaths, the checklist could prevent 9,360,000 complications and 1,638,000 deaths (numbers calculated manually, not reported in paper). On top of that, the surgical safety checklist is a one page document with 19 steps-- a rather inexpensive intervention that is readily adoptable. That's amazing potential to save lives!


Checklists aren't the only type of systems redesign that can help improve health care. Taking a note from the airline industry again, there many processes in health care that can be redesigned and standardized to absorb human errors and make safe execution the only option (2). For example, buttons in the cockpit are color coded, of specific shapes, and can be manipulated in a standardized way. A cockpit is designed to be user-friendly. Shouldn't health care be user-friendly?

Let's look at a specific health care process: getting intensive care patients out of bed and walking. Research conducted by Dr. Dale Needham of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine has shown that ICU patients benefit from getting out of bed and walking from time to time (3). These benefits include preventing muscle atrophy, improving lung function, and even decreasing the length of ICU or hospital stay. But, as you can imagine, this is not an easy task. Most ICU patients are weak and are hooked up to several devices. The current process just to prepare for walking takes 40 minutes, two nurses, and probably great dissatisfaction from patients-- who would want to get out of bed if it took 40 minutes? On top of walking with the chaos of cords and wires at your side, this kind of venturing out of bed requires a respiratory therapist and someone to follow the patient closely with a wheelchair in case the patient slips or needs to sit down immediately.

This process clearly could use some systems redesign. Accepting the challenge were eight biomedical engineering undergraduate students at Johns Hopkins University (JHU). They decided to design a walker that would allow ICU patients to get out of bed and walk around safely. Joshua Lerman (JHU '08) and his team first conducted a little research and collected about 50 objectives from doctors, nurses, and patients including safety of the innovation, ease of use, comfort, and maintenance. The improvement innovation also had to be self-contained, accommodate several medical devices, and fit in typical hospital corridors. Patient safety was their primary objective.

After several draft ideas including large adjustments such as, avoiding stress on the wires connecting the patient to medical equipment, and minute design details such as, the type of cloth used for the built-in seat of the walker, Josh Lerman and his team finalized their design. The ICU walker, or more formally known as the ICU Mover Aid, consists of two parts: 1) a streamlined tower that consolidated all necessary life support equipment and 2) a walker/wheelchair combination.


The final product reduces the chaos of several life support devices attached to the patient making it safer to walk, requires only a respiratory therapist to monitor and walk with the tower and a physical therapist to stand behind the patient and walker, and can be easily maneuvered through typical hospital corridors. The ICU walkers are now in use at Johns Hopkins.

I'm continually inspired by the ICU walker project because the improvement was created by students. As Dr. Berwick mentioned in his 2008 Forum Speech, hospitals have at least a 100 processes that each have best practices. While learning about patient safety and quality improvement is important, I don't think students have to wait until after completion of professional school to become a part of improvement work. Students are sets of fresh and enthusiastic eyes-- why not participate in improvement now?

IHI Open School leaders, Andy Carson-Stevens from Cardiff University in Wales and Rachel Fesperman of University of North Carolina- Chapel Hill, while at the IHI Open School Congress on January 10th proposed a way for students to get involved in the implementation and adoption of the WHO Surgical Safety Checklist. Medical students around the world participate in a surgical clerkship where they have the opportunity to observe and sometimes participate in the operating room. Andy and Rachel believe that these medical students can be mobilized for quality improvement.

These medical students can take ownership of the WHO Surgical Safety Checklist (or an institution's own surgical safety checklist) by memorizing it and taking notes on adherence to the checklist. Not only will the medical students be indoctrinated in best surgical safety practices for their own future careers, but they will become an army of data collectors-- measuring the impact of the implementation of the checklist from quantitative patient outcome results to more qualitative communication improvements within the surgical team. Other professional students can also easily get involved by helping with the analysis of data and developing suggestions for improvement.

There's a quote by Margaret Mead that is immortalized on the walls of our offices just above my desk and it reads, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

The WHO Surgical Safety Checklist and the ICU Walker are not just great ideas for health care, but are improvement projects of great potential that if quickly adopted can change the world of health care. Any particular process in health care that you think desperately needs attention? What are some other great improvement projects? How can students get involved?


2. Leape, Lucian. Error in Medicine. JAMA. Volume 272(23), 21 December 1994, pp 1851-1857.

More Information about the WHO Surgical Safety Checklist on IHI.org

Other articles about the WHO Surgical Safety Checklist and the ICU Walker:

Video of Atul Gawande Explaining the WHO Surgical Safety Checklist

- Eva Luo, MD/MBA Student at University of Michigan

Originally posted on January 15, 2009

first last

Average Content Rating
(2 user)
Please login to rate or comment on this content.
User Comments

© 2022 Institute for Healthcare Improvement. All rights reserved.