A truly amazing story just surfaced that deals with all these issues, albeit not in health care. If it is true, and if it had been revealed earlier, maybe society would have become more concerned earlier with these issues, and maybe they would have not ended up plaguing health care so.
Let me first just go through the basic structure of the story to underline the parallels with health care issues. Then I will quote the specifics.
(If you do not instantly recognize the story, I suggest going through this post sequentially, not jumping to the end, to make its impact more clear.)
The Structure of the Story
A large corporation had just put on-line, with much publicity, a high-technology system that was advertised as bigger, faster, better than the competition.
Confusing Interface and Terminology, Wrong Control Input
A few days after becoming operational, those in charge suddenly noticed a looming and severe problem. A technician was ordered to make an extreme control input to avoid the problem. However, there was confusion about the terminology of the input. While the system he was controlling was new, and had a new interface, it was operating in an area in which the old terminology, from a time in which the interface for the particular control worked in the opposite direction, was still in use. So his extreme input was in exactly the wrong direction. By the time the mistake was clear, and the control was reversed, it was too late, and the first stage of the catastrophe ensued.
Ill-Informed Management Overrules the Professionals
It is possible that the catastrophe could have been ameliorated if a crucial part of the system were then to have been quickly shut down. The highest ranking professional on duty ordered it shut down. However, soon after the events above, a top executive in the corporation, who was nearby only because of all the hoopla surrounding the system's roll out, came on the scene. He countermanded the order for the shutdown, possibly thinking continuing operation would cost less money and result in less bad publicity. True disaster then ensued.
Whistle Blowing Suppressed
After the disaster, there were several government hearings. The top executive denied any knowledge of the decision making that lead to the disaster. A professional who had not been present when the decisions were made, but was told about them by those who were present, avoided mention of the events above, because the top executive had told him that if he were to have told the truth, the company would have been found negligent, its insurance would not have covered the disaster, and it would have gone bankrupt, and everyone would lose their jobs. So he never told anyone except first-degree relatives. The other people who were present for the events above did not testify, for reasons to be discussed below.
So this story has all the familiar elements. But so have many others. Why was the suppression of this version of the story (assuming its true, which is not proven) so important?
The Real Story
Let us go through the elements again, this time with quotes from the article in the London, UK, Telegraph:
Introduction and Context
All families have their secrets, but usually about things that don’t matter to anybody else. Not in the case of Louise Patten, though – or The Lady Patten to give her her full title, the wife of former Tory Education minister, Lord (John) Patten, though her own career as one of the first women board directors of a FTSE 100 company, and as a successful author of financial thrillers, means that she has plenty of achievements in her own right.Confusing Terminology and Interface
As a teenager in the 1960s, Patten was let in on a secret by her beloved grandmother, which, if revealed, she was warned, would result in two things. The first was awful – it would destroy the good name of her dead grandfather, Charles Lightoller, awarded the DSC with Bar in the First World War, and a hero again for his part in the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940. But the second would change history, overturning the authorised version of one of the world’s greatest disasters, the sinking of the Titanic with the loss of 1517 lives in April 1912.
The tension between these two outcomes goes some way to explaining why, for 40 years, Patten kept quiet....
'After the collision,’ Patten goes on, 'my grandfather went down with the Captain and [First Officer] Murdoch to Murdoch’s cabin to get the firearms in case there were riots when loading the lifeboats. That is when they told him what had happened.'
'Instead of steering Titanic safely round to the left of the iceberg, once it had been spotted dead ahead, the steersman, Robert Hitchins, had panicked and turned it the wrong way.’
At first glance it sounds extraordinary that anyone – much less the man put in charge of the wheel on the maiden voyage of what was then the world’s most expensive ocean liner – could have made such a schoolboy error.
'Titanic was launched at a time when the world was moving from sailing ships to steam ships. My grandfather, like the other senior officers on Titanic, had started out on sailing ships. And on sailing ships, they steered by what is known as “Tiller Orders” which means that if you want to go one way, you push the tiller the other way. [So if you want to go left, you push right.] It sounds counter-intuitive now, but that is what Tiller Orders were. Whereas with “Rudder Orders’ which is what steam ships used, it is like driving a car. You steer the way you want to go. It gets more confusing because, even though Titanic was a steam ship, at that time on the North Atlantic they were still using Tiller Orders. Therefore Murdoch gave the command in Tiller Orders but Hitchins, in a panic, reverted to the Rudder Orders he had been trained in. They only had four minutes to change course and by the time Murdoch spotted Hitchins’ mistake and then tried to rectify it, it was too late.
A Manager Countermanding the Professional
If the steersman Hitchins had made a human error, Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star Line, owners of the Titanic, and another survivor of the sinking, gave a lethal order.
'Titanic had hit the iceberg at her most vulnerable point,’ explains Patten, 'but she could probably, my grandfather estimated, have gone on floating for a long time. But Ismay went up on the bridge and didn’t want his massive investment to sit in the middle of the Atlantic either sinking slowly, or being tugged in to port. Not great publicity! So he told the Captain to go Slow Ahead. Titanic was meant to be unsinkable.’
'If Titanic had stood still,’ she demonstrates, 'she would have survived at least until the rescue ship came and no one need have died, but when they drove her 'Slow Ahead’, the pressure of the sea coming through her damaged hull forced the water over the bulkheads and flooded sequentially one watertight compartment after another – and that was why she sank so fast.’
Whistle Blower Suppressed, the Cover Up
Why, though, I puzzle, would Patten’s grandfather, who sounds like a thoroughly honest and brave man, have lied and carried on lying? 'Because,’ she explains, 'when he was on the rescue ship, Bruce Ismay pointed out to my grandfather that if he told the truth, the White Star Line would be judged negligent and its limited liability insurance would be invalid. Ismay pretty much said that the whole company would go bust and everyone would lose their jobs. There was a code of honour among men like my grandfather in those days. So he lied to protect others’ jobs.’Conclusion
But why didn’t her grandmother speak up after her husband’s death in 1952? 'She was worried about showing this heroic figure to be a liar. And my mother, who also knew the secret and was even uncomfortable with Granny having told me, felt even more strongly about it. She hero-worshipped my grandfather.’
So there this secret sat, locked in a family circle from which Patten is now the only survivor.
The story does seem amazing. I am hardly an expert on the sinking of the Titanic, so should not try to comment on its truth. It does have some plausibility, and provides an explanation for one of the most important and influential disasters of the 20th century that is still poorly understood and a cause for controversy.
In my humble opinion, if it were true, and had it come out earlier, this amazing story would have focused society's concerns on issues that have instead become scourges of our current era, and particularly important, if not frequently enough discussed causes of our health care dysfunction.
The Titanic disaster lead to major changes in numerous safety practices, leading to rules about the adequacy of lifeboats and radio communication, and even swimming proficiency requirements in higher education. (I had to pass a swimming test as a Brown University freshman that was a legacy of the sinking of the Titanic, I was told.) Most of these practices increased the survivability of accidents.
What if the focus was also on the causes of accidents? What if there was a groundswell of advocacy, starting in 1912, against pressure from business and financial leaders on professionals sworn to protect the public's health and safety, and against intimidation of whistle-blowers whose revelations could protect public health and safety? Maybe health care, and many other parts of life, would have turned out better?