The Aviation Analogy for Training Health Care Professionals

We occasionally encounter the argument that, since engineers design planes, but they don’t design humans, treating the patient as if they were an airplane (and the clinicians as if they were flight crew members) does not hold up. But this is a misconception; the aviation analogy, when properly articulated, does not place the patient in the role of the airplane. The patient is more like the atmosphere.

HealthCare11-150x150healthcare21-150x150Patient Monitor ≈ Atmosphere Monitor

It is more correct to say that the engineers design aircraft to function as the interface between the aircrew and the atmosphere. We can see this by looking at the mission of the aircrew, which is not the simplistic “fly the airplane”. This would make a mere device the goal of the activity, which it is not. Likewise, we would not make “operate surgical gadget X” the mission statement of a clinician. Properly stated, the mission of the aircrew is to deliver something through the atmosphere. This statement keeps the aircraft and other gadgets in their proper place; they are merely the means to the end. It also identifies the main challenge to be overcome by the aircrew, and that’s not the airplane—it’s the atmosphere.

Seen this way, the patient functions like the atmosphere, not like the airplane; the patient generates most of the variability and unpredictability that challenge the clinician. This is the aviation analogy for training health care professionals.

In FY 2006, the U.S. Air Force experienced only one aviation fatality, ONE.