3 things Healthcare can teach the Airline Industry

The last few weeks have not made good reading for the airline industry. The United Airlines debacle of the 70-year old passenger being forcibly dragged off the plane garnered world-wide attention, and the latest story out of San Francisco of an American Airlines passenger aggressively having her baby stroller taken away—have re-ignited the debate about customer service in the airline industry.

Over the last decade, many people in healthcare bureaucracy have been quick to use the slogan “make healthcare more like aviation”. I’ve written previously about how I believe this is like comparing apples to oranges, because there are some very real differences between the two industries that can’t be neglected. I’ve also written about how what’s happened to pilots should be a warning for physicians in terms of completely losing professional autonomy and control.

Sure, aviation may be fantastic as far as safety and protocols go, which is something all industries can learn from. But as far as customer service goes, the airline industry actually has much to catch up on. Sadly for healthcare, it’s the corporatization of medicine that is doing much to de-humanize our field, and it’s only thanks to the dedicated efforts of frontline doctors (and nurses) that we are not quite as bad as aviation (yet). Here are 3 things that healthcare can teach aviation:

1.Doctors endeavor to treat their patients like humans

We learn in medical school that everyone is unique and has their own story to tell. As much as the current system restricts time with patients, most doctors know that there can’t be a cookie-cutter approach to medicine and healthcare. What works for one patient, doesn’t work for another. Likewise, the human body is totally unique, and heals in its own way. That’s why most doctors generally push back as soon as they sniff that administrators are trying to turn hospitals into assembly lines. We know what working at the frontline of medicine is really like, and how patients are not simply widgets and numbers

2.Doctors understand the limits of protocols and where to use common sense

They may be a great idea in certain parts of healthcare, for example surgical and procedural checklists—but even so far as evidence-based medicine is concerned, there are still many limitations to its application in real-life every day patients. Everybody responds in a certain way. One medication may work great in one patient, and in another patient who may seem to have a very similar risk profile—it is not tolerated or has a major side effect. In most circumstances, treatment must always be tailored to the patient

3.Healthcare customer service

Hospitals and clinics put a huge amount of effort into making patients feel comfortable (some would say, as far as surveys go, this may even be a bit over the top). They exist in a competitive environment, and any complaints that patients or their families give, are typically taken very seriously—with corrective action attempted. Hospitals in the United States are always trying to do things to make the healthcare experience better, such as building more single-bedded rooms or making environments more quiet. In contrast, with the airline industry, it’s a constant race to the bottom: Lose leg room, cut meal services, and add-on extra charges to nickel and dime at every opportunity (even for printing a boarding pass in some cases).

Sadly, the above is an example of what happens when one allows excessive corporatization and de-personalization of any industry. That’s what most suits in the corporate world struggle to understand: People crave personalized localized experiences, with a healthy dose of human touch. This is also a reason why healthcare and business are very difficult bed fellows, and perhaps even irreconcilably incompatible.

It’s simply not acceptable for the airline industry to think: “We get our passengers from A to B safely, and whether or not they are treated like cattle in-between is irrelevant”.

So aviation industry, for once, healthcare has something to teach you.


Suneel Dhand is a physician, author, speaker and healthcare consultant. He has experience in a number of different healthcare environments, having worked up and down the East coast and also internationally. His specialty areas include hospital QI, optimizing healthcare IT, and improving the patient experience. He is the author of 3 books, including most recently “The Ultimate Patient Advocate in Your Pocket”, designed to help hospitalized patients. He is also the founder of HealthITImprove, an organization dedicated to improving and optimizing information technology at the frontlines of healthcare.

  1. April 25, 2017
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