Crisis recovery in surgery: Error management and problem solving in safety-critical situations

Published:April 22, 2022DOI:



      Surgical crises, both clinical and executive, carry risk of harm to patients, staff, and organizations. Once stabilized and contained, crisis recovery requires complex decision-making and problem-solving to address primary failures (errors) and their consequences. In contrast to other safety-critical professions, surgeons may lack access to crisis recovery strategies and tools that go beyond the technical aspects of clinical practice. This study aims to develop a framework for surgical crisis recovery based on problem-solving interventions used by pilots in commercial aviation.


      This study undertook observational fieldwork, semistructured interviews, and focus groups with senior airline pilots and health care safety experts. Thematic analysis using the framework method identified key interventions applicable to surgical crisis recovery. Subsequently, expert group consensus adapted and content validated this model for clinical use.


      Qualitative data from 22 aviation and health care safety experts informed surgical crisis resolution. This consisted of 3 strategies: (1) building cognitive capacity by improving situational awareness and workload management; (2) using checklists in abnormal situations to implement emergency operating procedures; (3) undertaking structured decision-making using analysis-based problem-solving cycles (eg, T-DODAR framework). Twelve tools were validated and adapted to aid implementation of these strategies.


      Once stabilized, surgical crises may be resolved using 3 sequential strategies derived from commercial aviation.

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