Checklist or choke list?

Medical errors happen every day. Few make the headlines, but when they do, almost everyone who chimes in to comment offers the same type of solution for avoiding them. Three of the most common are guidelines, decision support and checklists.

From my vantage point as a primary care physician I agree that checklists, in particular, can enhance clinical accuracy, but some of the lists I have to work with in today’s healthcare environment are more likely to bog me down and distract me than focus my attention on the essentials. I call them choke lists.

Re-reading “The Checklist Manifesto” by Atul Gawande, published in 2010, the year before my clinic implemented their first EMR, I am reminded of how much has changed since then. How I work and where my attention is drawn has changed because of the minutia of Meaningful Use, Patient Centered Medical Home, Accountable Care and all the other new philosophies and forces that define primary health care. Each one has their own set of checklists, many only slightly different, and none of these lists actually improve diagnostic accuracy; this is somehow taken for granted, or perhaps not addressed because the creators of these checklists, as non-physicians, simply have nothing to say about that aspect of healthcare.

Gawande writes: “There are good checklists and bad….Bad checklists are vague and imprecise. They are too long; they are hard to use; they are impractical. They are made by desk jockeys with no awareness of the situations in which they are to be deployed. They treat the people using the tools as dumb and try to spell out every single step. They turn people’s brain off rather than turn them on.”

A very simple way to “turn on” or focus providers’ brains is to adhere to a structured format of clinical assessment, but to avoid unnecessary rigidity after that. After all, in my world we have 15-30 minutes at most with every patient for a fee of $50-150. You can only cram so many prescribed agenda items into that kind of time frame before your time is up.

Today’s checklists would have me ask every patient, apart from figuring out what is wrong with them, if they are homeless, home bound, safe from domestic abuse, if they have scatter rugs, firearms in the house (not a legal question in Florida, however), if they are a caregiver and several more things I can’t remember. I am sure the architects of these templates meant well, but the end result of long lists like this is that physicians risk not paying attention to the forest because of all the trees. A more appropriate checklist could summarize all these items in one question: “Have you considered the patient’s home environment?”

One item I haven’t found in my new EMR is what we in Sweden always used to include in our medical histories, “Epidemiology”. This simple word prompted the question “Do you know anybody else with the same symptoms as yours?” It is a question I overlooked at least once that I will always remember:

I was fresh out of residency, working in a small town in Maine. A middle aged man came to see me about nausea, loss of appetite and abdominal pain of more than a week’s duration. I didn’t know what was wrong with him, so I ordered some labs and an upper GI series. His CBC was mildly abnormal and while I was waiting for his x-ray to get done, my partner and employer ran into him in the grocery store one Saturday. Doctor Joe approached me the following Monday and told me not to bother with the x-Ray: “Mr. Billings’ dog was just diagnosed with lead poisoning. You might want to check a lead level on him”.

Talking to Mr. Billings, he had been scraping paint off his old farmhouse with his Golden Retriever faithfully waiting at the bottom of the ladder, inhaling the dust from the dried and cracked paint. It never occurred to me to ask about “epidemiology” the way I had been taught, because I had dismissed infectious causes of Mr. Billings’ symptoms almost subconsciously and never considered environmental exposure, which also falls under the “epidemiology” heading.

A similar but more dramatic incidence in “The Checklist Manifesto” involved a surgeon who thought he had all kinds of time to get ready to explore and repair a small stab wound inflicted at a Halloween party. Suddenly the patient’s blood pressure bottomed out and as the surgeon hurriedly entered the abdominal cavity and found it filled with blood, he remembered he had neglected to ask about the weapon that had caused the stab wound. He later found out it was a bayonet, which turned out to have lacerated the abdominal aorta – he had only assumed it must have been a pocket knife.

Obviously, no check list can be complete enough to include questions about scraping lead paint for every person with abdominal pain and asking about having been stabbed by a bayonet in every laceration – only more general and somewhat open-ended questions will get you all the answers in a reasonable amount of time.

Quoting Gawande again, “The checklist cannot be lengthy. A rule of thumb some use is to keep it between five and nine items, which is the limit of working memory.”

As I contemplate how to continually improve the care I deliver while also addressing the increasing demands for fulfilling and documenting the Government’s requirements, I think I can use my computer and my EMR to streamline the way I meet all the requirements. But I think it’ll be up to me to create my own clinical checklists, because the Government issue doesn’t seem to be my size, which reminds me of another set of Swedish experiences I had – boot camp, blisters and learning to march in formation and follow orders without complaining.

Hopefully, the “official” checklists will evolve over time as people have a chance to assess their impact. Again, quoting Dr. Gawande:

“…no matter how careful we might be, no matter how much thought we might put in, a checklist has to be tested in the real world, which is inevitably more complicated than expected. First drafts always fall apart….and one needs to study how, make changes, and keep testing until the checklist works consistently.”

Welcome to the real world, any time you wish to see what it’s like, Mr. President, Ms. Congresswoman, Mr. Insurance Executive, Ms. EMR vendor!

5 Responses to “Checklist or choke list?”


  1. 1 English Pensioner October 24, 2014 at 5:52 pm

    Knowing that I liked travelling, the first question my doctor used to ask me if the cause of my problem wasn’t immediately obvious was “Have you been abroad lately?”

  2. 2 David Doherty November 3, 2014 at 7:24 pm

    Perhaps it’s time to let Patients use Clinically Validated interactive medical history taking questionnaires?

    http://mhealthinsight.com/2012/05/16/checklist-chicken-or-egg-should-we-give-them-to-doctors-or-patients-first/


  1. 1 Checklist Or Choke List? | Edmund's Page Trackback on October 24, 2014 at 7:08 pm

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