Published: 04/03/2004, Volume II4, No. 5895 Page 8

The NHS still has much to learn from the safety record of the airline industry, chief medical officer Professor Sir Liam Donaldson told the National Patient Safety Agency conference, despite people increasingly telling him that the two fields have little in common.

Sir Liam told the conference: '[Airlines] have systematically reduced risk over the years and they have created a magic formula where the number of [reported] errors and their incidents have gone up but their severity has gone down - the very trend that we want to see in healthcare.

'They've taught us about reporting systems and how to develop those, though they clearly have a major advantage over healthcare in that at least 50 per cent of the information used to improve airline safety comes from a black box in which technical information is gathered and analysed automatically, ' he added.

He said: 'People are starting to think about whether it might be possible with modern technology virtually on the horizon, say where a black box is in the operating theatre for a major operation.'

A black box-style system has been championed at St Mary's Hospital in London by professor of surgery Professor Sir Ara Darzi.

Professor James Reason, a psychologist specialising in human error and safety at Manchester University, also told the conference that while airline safety differed in having fewer diverse activities and less 'personal' human input, healthcare staff needed to be better at crisis management, a crucial skill in avoiding aircraft accidents.

'We must not neglect personal skills; We have got to think about the people working in the NHS and what tools can we give them.'

Sir Liam also told the conference audience about an international alliance on patient safety set up following his proposal to the World Health Organisation, which will look at issues 'where we might be able to reduce risk across the planet'.