Go to navigation Go to content

Sully Sullenberger – the ‘Miracle Pilot’ turned Health Care Advocate, Calls Medical Malpractice ‘Strikingly Common’

Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (Ret.), the pilot famous for successfully landing his distressed plane on the Hudson River, has become a national advocate for decreasing medical errors. According to an article on Politico.com this month, Sullenberger is using his status as a national hero following his deft piloting that saved the lives of his passengers to call for “pilot-like safety checklists” for doctors to prevent medical malpractice.

“If tens of thousands of people died in plane crashes, Sullenberger said in the article, “there would be a national ground stop. Fleets would be grounded. Airports would close. There would be a presidential commission. The NTSB would investigate. No one would fly until we had solved the problems. But patients die needlessly every day, and it’s barely a blip on the national radar.”

Sullenberger has been busy in retirement advocating for improvement in patient care. In July he spoke at the American Hospital Association’s annual leadership summit in San Diego. Last year he attended a dinner with healthcare industry leaders and members of Congress. But politics has apparently frustrated him. At that dinner he said he asked a Congressman whether bipartisan support was possible on health information technology. “And [the lawmaker] said, ‘You know, even if we could get the people on the other side of the aisle to agree to this, I would question their motives. I would think they had some ulterior agenda,’ Sullenberger recalled, to which he replied, ‘I don’t mean to be impertinent, but if we could achieve these… would their motivations really matter to you? And he looked at me as if he never even considered that possibility and said, ‘No, I guess not.”

But many solutions are not political. Sullenberger seeks to end “balkanized” health care delivery in favor of coordinated care. He suggests raising public awareness, delivering reliable data on medical errors and relating that data with “compelling personal storytelling.” Sullenberger also advocates for the use of checklists by health care providers — a recommendation advanced by physician-author Atul Gawande. He also wants a different approach to reviewing medical errors, figuring out what’s behind them rather than blaming practitioners.

Deaths from medical malpractice are strikingly common, Sullenberger said. And it’s not just bad apple physicians; often times it is the systems in place. “My message is we should be less patient,” Sullenberger said. “We should reject the status quo now, not 20 years from now, because it’s failing us. I’m not happy with what’s happening. The rate of change, the rate of improvement in patient safety has plateaued.”