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The Story of Elaine Bromiley

In this video by the Clinical Human factors Group, Martin Bromiley outlines the role of Human factors and Ergonomics in improving patient safety.

In 2005, Mrs Elaine Bromiley, attended hospital for an elective routine nasal procedure. She was an otherwise fit and well 37 years old, mother-of-two. After induction of anaesthesia there were unexpected difficulties and prolonged attempts to secure her airway. Elaine suffered catastrophic brain damage and died 13 days later. In this video by the Clinical Human Factors Group (CHFG), Mr Martin Bromiley, her husband and an airline pilot, introduces the concept of Human Factors and Ergonomics (HFE) in healthcare.

Before watching the video, let’s briefly summarise what happened during Elaine’s case. The video “Just a routine operation” and the report of the independent enquiry, conducted by the then president of the Association of Anaesthetist of Great Britain and Ireland AAGBI, Prof Harmer, describe in more details the tragic events that led to her death.

At the pre-operative assessment visit, it was highlighted that except for a congenitally fused vertebra in her neck leading to an “ok mouth opening” and “slight limitation in neck movements” Elaine had a normal airway assessment. On the day of the procedure, after applying monitoring and carrying out routine checks, anaesthesia was induced.

Soon after, attempts at inserting a supraglottic airway device and face-mask ventilation with an oral airway were very difficult. Oxygen saturation dropped to 40% and her heart rate started to drop, too. Several attempts at laryngoscopy and intubation by two different consultant anaesthetists all failed. The team was now faced with a “Cant’ Intubate, Can’t Oxygenate” scenario.

After about 20 minutes, an intubating laryngeal mask was inserted and allowed some minimal ventilation, that resulted in the oxygen saturations to rise to 90%. Further attempts at passing a tracheal tube through the intubating laryngeal mask, first blindly then with a fiberoptic scope failed, and oxygen saturations deteriorated to 49%.

Suggestions by theatre nurses to perform an emergency front of neck airway and admit the patient to the intensive care unit were not acknowledged. Forty minutes later, in view of the events, it was agreed to abandon the procedure and to wake Elaine up. Drug infusions were stopped, the intubating laryngeal mask was removed and an oral airway inserted. Elaine started to breath spontaneously and her oxygen saturations improved and so she was transferred to the recovery room.

Unfortunately Elaine never regained appropriate consciousness, with erratic fluctuations in her vitals signs and was subsequently admitted to an intensive care unit. Her airway was definitively secured after more difficulties. Elaine sadly passed away 13 days later having suffered irreversible hypoxic brain injury.

After these tragic event, Martin insisted for an independent review to be carried out, to establish what happened that lead to Elaine’s death, not to point blame to any of the individuals involved, but to highlight and disseminate any learning points. The inquiry found that in Elaine’s case there were several issues that can be attributed to HFE, and we will look in more details at these later in this activity.

In the years since Elaine’s death, Martin has taken it upon himself to advocate for an improved safety culture in healthcare. He set up the charity Clinical Human Factors Group, that “works with healthcare professionals, managers and service-users partnering with experts in Human Factors from healthcare and other industries to campaign for change in the NHS and healthcare”. The CHFG says:

Human Factors and Ergonomics is a scientific discipline that aims to understand how humans behave in a system and how to optimise the system design, to make it easy for people who work in high-risk industries such as in healthcare, and have to perform complex tasks, to do the right thing, and difficult or ideally impossible to do the wrong thing.

On the CHFG website, you can find more information and resources on HFE in healthcare. In the next step, we will explore in more depth key concepts and terminology of HFE in relation to airway management and Elaine’s case.

What do you understand by “Human Factors and Ergonomics”? Can you think of any examples that may have played a role in Elaine’s case or in other situations you may have encountered during your practice?

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