3 lessons the medical establishment can learn from the oil & gas industry

My dad’s fight with cancer really changed my thinking about how I approached my career, relations with my family and friends, and aspects of the oil & gas industry I’d never considered very much, namely the health of its workforce.

One aspect I HAVE considered at length is that of the safety of the workforce:  I favor strong yet balanced regulations, and I’ve always been upfront about my views that though the oil & gas industry does actively take measures to protect personnel, it could still do more.

Nevertheless, my intense, firsthand experience with the medical establishment throughout my father’s course of treatment drove home that, imperfection aside, the oil & gas industry still takes an approach that I believe could carry over to medicine and improve the quality of patient care.

To be clear here, this is not to criticize the abilities or the work of any individuals:  throughout my father’s ordeal, I was deeply appreciative of the nurses’ dedication, and as a patient of a top cancer hospital, I assumed that the doctors were experts in their field.

Rather, my view is that these issues are structural and systemic to the whole of the medical industry, and if I noticed these at a top hospital, I assume they appear – perhaps even more severely – in the rest of the nation’s healthcare establishments.

The rigid medical hierarchy:  why few medical professionals are likely to say “stop the job”

In the oil & gas industry, one of the very first things you are taught when you are sent out to the field is that everyone, regardless of rank or tenure, has “stop the job authority”.  The concept is simple:  if you see any action or equipment configuration that could potentially cause harm, not only is it your right but your DUTY to say “this doesn’t look safe, let’s take a pause and talk this over”.

For many people, especially those new to the industry or just out of school, it can be very tough to speak up when around people who have more experience.  Nevertheless, no matter how much people are experienced, they can make mistakes, so it is CRUCIAL that everyone be empowered to keep watch over everyone else.  This is why, from day one, the industry tries to get everyone comfortable with the idea that they MUST speak up if they feel unsafe actions are taking place.

At worst:  the act is actually safe, a little time has been lost, and there has been some discussion around why it was safe and why it is a best practice; everyone benefits from the discussion and some people may even learn something new.

At best:  the act WAS unsafe, someone said something, and lives were saved.

In medicine, the hierarchy between levels is EXTREMELY rigid, and no one dares speak above their level.  In fact, while I was in the hospital, my brother’s girlfriend – a doctor who works somewhere else and was just visiting with my family – introduced herself to one of the nurses caring for my father, and it came up she was a doctor.  The nurse, only half jokingly, said “Oh, so I should be afraid of you!”.

Thinking back to my time in the field, certainly, I was a degreed engineer accompanying operators who had no education beyond high school.

So what?

Yes, overall job success is ultimately the engineer’s responsibility, but when an operator has ten years’ experience running a piece of equipment, their thoughts are worth listening to, regardless of how much formal schooling they have or have not received.

The truth is though, physicians DO make mistakes, and no one should be afraid to point out those mistakes, or feel threatened if they are the ones on the receiving end.

Patients and clients come first, not the service providers’ feelings and ego!

How much incentive is there really to pursue a “zero incident” target when patient outcomes look bad?

In any industrial business, it should be absolutely obvious that at the simplest level, all employees are doing is showing up for work, and should in no way expect to go home in any other condition other than the one in which they came to work.

This is why the oil & gas industry has a “zero incident” mentality:  if we only had a “no severe incident” mentality, I guarantee mediocrity and complacency would set in, some companies would try to play with the definition of a “severe incident” and ultimately standards would slip.

Even now, the industry is not perfect, but only by shooting and realistically striving for perfection can we hope to get to the point where everyone can in fact come to work with no fear of harm being done to them while on the job site.

In medicine, that’s not the case:  a patient checks into a hospital hoping to get better, but medicine remains an imperfect science, so no patient is guaranteed to leave the hospital in better shape than they arrived…or at all.

What incentive does that provide to improve operations?

Negative patient prognoses shouldn’t mean that discipline and rigor should not be maintained with regards to patient care, but my father’s experience before he died lead me to believe that this doesn’t always happen.

You can’t put a price on life, but that doesn’t mean the tab should not be controlled

I can’t think of a more inelastic service than medicine:  when the health and/or life of you or your loved one is on the line, what price wouldn’t you pay?  Furthermore, information is asymmetrically distributed:  the medical staff do this for a living, and patients most of the time know nothing about medicine.

The result:  not only can hospitals charge more or less what they want, patients have no way of determining whether or not they even truly need what they are being charged for.

This leads to quite the ethical quandary for the service providers:  remember that no one deserves to have their health held for ransom, or charge whatever they can get away with.

In many countries around the world, patients get good treatment for a fair price.   Here in the US, not so much, and all but the richest few families in this country could be rendered bankrupt if someone were to be hit with an unforeseen medical condition.

Admittedly, spiraling prices have been the case in the oil & gas industry for the last few years, but you could always tie this back to some imbalance in the market:  equipment for oil & gas jobs is extremely expensive, can take years to manufacture, and there just isn’t enough trained personnel to operate it.

The market has now caught up, and operators are pushing back.

The result:  greater internal efficiencies, and increased competition between service providers.  In fact, the service providers now court the operators, and the operators have the knowledge to discern between each service company’s offering.

I’m young and healthy, but as someone who will probably require more medical attention as I age, it would be nice to see that “breaking point” come soon for the medical industry:  no one should have to trade their financial security for a clean bill of health, or pay around $7 for a dose of Advil.

Some final thoughts

These are great times, when people from across the world can communicate instantly, leading to incredible synergies between professionals.  Indeed, the medical and oil & gas industries collaborate now on some really novel projects, such as this partnership between Cameron and the Texas Heart Institute to create a new kind of artificial heart.

Hopefully this type of open collaboration, where each partner recognizes and draws upon the others’ expertise, continues indefinitely, leading not only to better patient care but also more satisfied customers of the oil & gas industry’s myriad products.