Performing surgery and controlling distracted driving–are they the same?

My answer to the above question is YES. I won’t be surprised if some of the readers are reacting with amazement and rolling their eyes. Sure that is a genuine reaction to expect. To be fair, my apprehensive friends deserve a clear and compelling explanation as to why I think that the similarity makes sense.

It was a mere coincidence that an event I attended earlier in this week validated my thinking, hence this article. The event was the Annual Julia Berg Memorial lecture at the University of Minnesota organized by my dear friends Dan and Welcome Berg in memory of their daughter Julia who lost her life to a botched surgery. After the tragedy the Bergs resolved to bring this serious problem in front of general audiences.

This year’s the lecture was delivered by Dr. Atul Gawande, a surgeon, author and a strong advocate for safe surgery. Dr Gawande is a professor at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, a staff writer for The New Yorker, and a professor at Harvard Medical School and the Harvard School of Public Health. He is also the Executive Director of Ariadne Labs, a joint center for health systems innovation, and chairman of Lifebox, a nonprofit organization making surgery safer globally.

Dr Gawande described how errors take palce in operating theaters, and are just ‘waiting to occur’. Sadly most are avoidable. He listed the following among some of the primary causes:
The surgeon:

  1. Did not have adequate hands-on training in a challenging environments
  2. Was overconfident about what the capabilities of the machinery and equipment and therefore mis-diagnosed
  3. Did not take responsibility for the error/mistake
  4. Did not seek expert advice
  5. Performed non-value/unnecessary tasks
  6. Failed to find out: what happened?

What struck me the most about the talk was how a driver makes the same mistakes operating a car as a surgeon operating on a person. My intent here is not to list similarity of errors but to learn from the approach for tackling the medical errors.

In his concluding remarks Dr. Gawande’s emphasized the need for peer education/consultation in reducing surgical errors. He noted that a system solution is better than an individual solution because it integrates multiple insights into the solution.

It was heartening to find support of an idea I mooted in a previous article on teen behavior and distracted driving. In that article I referred to Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, a Royal Society University Research Fellow and Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London, UK.  Her research centers on the development of social cognition and executive function in the typically developing adolescent brain. Ms. Blackmore states that teenagers are more prone to peer influence, taking certain actions that turn into tragedies caused by risk taking behaviors rampant among them.

Considering peer pressure to be a big influencer, it is easy for a teen to get entangled in risky behaviors that are pervasive in their age groups, and performing dangerous activities while driving. But, I see a silver lining there. If teens are easily influenced by bad behaviors, it is not unreasonable to assume that peer influenced good behavior is also a possibility.

The Shreya R. Dixit Memorial Foundation ( is currently working with three high schools in the Twin Cities to establish distraction-free driving clubs during the fall sessions. The foundation will train peer advocated is each of the schools to leverage peer influence for educating young drivers about safe and distraction-free driving practices, complementing the current driver-ed programs.

The foundation is also developing collaborations with a couple of graduate schools for the design of a performance metric and success criteria for the clubs. This will allow us to replicate the learning across other high schools in the region.

I hope readers will now find meaning in my assertion at the beginning that surgical errors and driver errors have similar behavioral underpinnings. Also, there is an opportunity to learn from the medical area in creating solutions too.

Do you now feel comfortable with the title of this article? I hope you do.