I just finished reading a fascinating book chapter "The ethnic theory of plane crashes" in Malcolm Gladwells book Outliers. Malcolms argument is that
The single most important variable in determining whether a plane crashes is not the plane, it's not the maintenance, it's not the weather, it's the culture the pilot comes from. Planes are flown safely when the pilot and co-pilot are in open and honest communication. And in cultures where it is difficult for a junior person to speak openly to a superior, you have lots of plane crashes.As summarized by Rob Verger:
(Source: CNN Interview with Gladwell)
Gladwell explores two plane crashes—one Colombian (Avianca Flight 52) and another, South Korean (Korean Air Flight 801)—and how the culture of the pilots perhaps contributed to each disaster. He focuses on how well the pilots communicated with each other and with air traffic control. Poor communication in these examples, he argues, has to do with something called a culture’s Power Distance Index (P.D.I.)—the term and concept come from psychologist Geert Hofstede—which is a measurement of “how much a particular culture values and respects authority,” as Gladwell defines it. Countries with a high P.D.I. generally value being more deferential towards authority, and thus not contradicting a superior (the U.S. and New Zealand both have a low P.D.I.). Gladwell argues that since both Colombia and South Korea rank towards the top of the P.D.I. list, the subordinate members of their cockpit crews were unable or unwilling to speak up as assertively as they should have about safety concerns.
Gladwell retells the story of Korean Air, which in the 1990s was plagued by a series of plane crashes. Investigators discovered that when Koreans spoke to each other in Korean, they "were trapped in roles dictated by the heavy weight of their country's cultural legacy." That meant that they were hesitant to challenge a superior directly. According to Gladwell, a number of plane crashes are the direct consequence of "power distance", resulting in miscommunication and eventually disaster.
As a health care researcher and patient advocate I was intrigued by the concept of power distance and the notion of measuring relationships between culture and safety.
And of course, being a professor in health policy and ehealth, I started thinking about the relationship between health care culture and quality/safety of care.
I would argue that in health care, the relationship between patient and health care professional is sometimes akin to the relationship between pilot and copilot. Patients need to speak up and need to be engaged to utter concerns or preferences to avoid disaster. Power distance, which is "the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions accept and expect that power is distributed unequally" is a barrier often impeding patient-doctor commmunication.
I also hypothesized that power distance is an inverse predictor for patient empowerment: The more consumers accept that there is and that there should be a "power distance" between patients and doctors, the less advocacy in terms of patient rights and access to information will take place, and public policy will be slower to adopt an empowered patient model.
To test this hypothesis, I correlated data (total scores) from the Euro Patient Empowerment Index, which scores patient rights, information access and financial incentives on a health policy level, with Hofstede's Power Distance Index - and found a surprisingly high inverse correlation between the two metrics.
Countries with a high Power Distance Index such as Poland also tend to have low Patient Empowerment scores, while countries such as Denmark, where there is less "fear of authority", also score high on the patient empowerment metric.
What does this all mean for health care policy? Well, if you believe Gladwell's argument that power distance is a predictor for aviation disasters, then it is very feasible to make the analogous argument in health care: that high power distance and low patient empowerment is often a cause for miscommunication with disastrous outcomes in health care.
And obviously there is a relationship to my other research area, ehealth, in that the Internet and the virtues of Medicine 2.0 (participation and openness, collaboration and disintermediation/apomediation) are powerful antidotes to reduce the power distance in health care between patients and doctors, but also between health care professionals (e.g. junior and senior doctors).
I am intrigued by these relationships between culture, policy, and health care quality, and I am trying to get my head around how to do further research in this area.
To avoid "ecological fallacies", such studies presumably must be undertaken at the individual level. So perhaps what we need to develop next is a patient empowerment index that can be administered at the individual rather than policy level, and which can be used to study relationships between empowerment and outcomes.