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Personalities: From Outer Space to Healthcare

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As a former astronaut with three space shuttle missions to her credit, Rhea Seddon, MD, knows a thing or two about teamwork and communication. Seddon, assistant chief medical officer at Vanderbilt Medical Group in Nashville, TN, is a consultant for Memphis, TN-based LifeWings Partners LLC, which uses aviation safety and training principles to improve healthcare quality and safety.

On standardization: When I went to NASA, I learned the importance of standardizing processes. There was no autonomy in how you talk to the control tower—I learned that was a great way to stay safe. When I came to Vanderbilt, I realized that healthcare is pretty chaotic. I began working to persuade physicians to standardize the parts of medicine that are routine, so they can use their brain power to provide the customized care patients need.

On a team approach: In aviation, every member of the crew knows something different about the process. In healthcare, it’s different information about the patient. Nurses know the patient more personally, physicians know the clinical aspects of the disease, and housekeepers may know of a problem from family interactions. You are a better leader if you make use of all those team members.

On lessons learned as an astronaut: If everybody on the team knows what you are going to do and what everyone’s role is, you can better perform your role and make sure that people are doing what is expected of them. It’s having situational awareness—that is important in a space flight. You have to know that the pilot is going to take care of these systems and Mission Control is going to monitor these things. It is the same thing in healthcare.

On launching a shuttle versus prepping a patient for surgery: The space shuttle probably has a longer checklist, because there are so many moving parts and people all over the world to coordinate. But I would bet that if you mapped out the whole process of care for a patient going through our system, it is pretty close to being as complex as getting a shuttle off the ground. We haven’t spent a lot of time looking at what has to come together to provide excellent care for patients.

—Carrie Vaughan