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Sullenberger Urges Hospitals to Adopt Aviation Culture of Safety

Cheryl Clark, for HealthLeaders Media, July 23, 2010

Hospital leaders attending the American Hospital Association's Leadership Summit in San Diego Thursday got a stern lecture from Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who advised them they should adopt the safety culture of the aviation industry. They must stop thinking of accidents “as inevitable and start thinking about them as unimaginable," he said. “We in aviation have learned a lot, and we’re anxious to share it with you.”

Sullenberger is the man acclaimed for the Jan. 15, 2009 “Miracle on the Hudson,” when a bird strike of his US Airways Flight 1549 forced him to land his plane with 155 passengers right into the Hudson River.

Sullenberger made his remarks to 1,000 hospital and healthcare officials who assembled for the first day of the 18th Annual American Hospital Association’s Leadership Summit in San Diego, a conference focusing on how to make front line changes to improve quality.

He said that what happened that day, his quick decision to avoid crashing into land in a heavily populated area, came only after more than 30 years of aviation improvements and safety training for him and his crew, a system often referred to as CRM or cockpit resource management.

The safety improvements involved standardization and adherence to checklists which enabled him to work seamlessly with his first officer in such a dire emergency. And it required a culture that allowed subordinate employees to ask questions when they perceived a lapse in protocol or judgment, without fear of recrimination or firing.

“We worked to build a culture a safety that allows us to face an unanticipated dire emergency, suddenly, one for which we had never specifically trained, and saved every life on board with only a few non life threatening injuries.”

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