Patients' LOS was compared at control and SSC intervention stages of the study. The total in-hospital LOS for both study hospitals was significantly reduced from 7.8 days to 7.0 days after introduction of the Checklist, with a mean difference of −0.8 days, t = 2.30 (95% CI, 0.11–1.43). Furthermore, there were no significant changes in length of surgery or in total time spent in the operating room.
To our knowledge, this is the first stepped wedge cluster RCT on the clinical effectiveness of the WHO SSC. The study showed substantial improvements in surgical outcomes. Across 2 hospitals of a well-developed and funded health care system (Norway) including 5 surgical specialties, complication rates fell by 42% on average when the SSC was introduced. The effect was largest when all 3 parts of the SSC were conducted. The effect was significant even when surgical procedures included “intention to treat” with the SSC (in all 3083 surgical procedures postintervention, Table 2). The findings support our hypothesis and are consistent with previous pre-/poststudies having found similar effects of the WHO Checklist use.14–16 Our results of reduction in morbidity also correspond to findings on use of the comprehensive “surgical patient safety checklist system” (SURPASS) in The Netherlands.13
The in-hospital stay decreased significantly in this study by almost a day. This is the first time the WHO SCC is shown to reduce LOS. The finding is consistent with a reduction in LOS by 0.6 days previously obtained after introducing the SURPASS checklist, which, however, did not reach statistical significance.13 Furthermore, our study reflects similar findings in intensive care units, where LOS has been significantly reduced after use of a daily checklist (goal sheet).38 LOS reduction provides a potential of significant cost savings in surgical care by improved patient outcome, as costs of complications and unplanned returns to operating room are reduced.39 Although the WHO SSC was designed for quality improvement, a secondary effect—cost savings—should further encourage health care leaders to adopt and support its use.
The degree of blinding is important for the validity of RCTs, and in our study, operating room staff were not informed of the study outcomes, as they routinely registered the patient data on the electronic data system of their operating rooms. To further prevent information bias, the outcome assessors were masked to which cohort (control and SSC stages) patients were enrolled. Furthermore, to reduce the risk of performance and information bias, all recovery and ward staff carried out care as usual and were blinded to the study cohorts and outcomes, following the extended CONSORT statement for nonpharmacological randomized trials.40
Our study has several limitations. First, the clusters that had not yet received the intervention could have been contaminated by possible enthusiasm for the SSC from colleagues in other specialties that were in the SSC study stage. Such bias would have likely minimized any positive effects of the Checklist. The substantial and robust decrease of complications that we found suggests that such bias did not affect the study significantly. A second limitation is the way in which the data were registered. A selection of ICD-10 codes was used to identify complications. It is possible that surgeons and ward doctors reported the ICD-10 codes variably. As far as we could account for, there were no changes in the ICD-10 code implemented during the study period. Furthermore, variable recording would equally affect the control and the SSC stages of the study. A final limitation is that recording of complications was confined to the in-hospital admission period. Data on complications after discharge were not recorded or obtained. The total number of postoperative complications could, therefore, be higher. A more extensive follow-up of the patients after discharge would be beneficial in future studies, though costly.
Further research should investigate how use of the SSC and other checklists achieves its positive impact on patient outcomes. Improved outcomes post–checklist implementation have been explained by improvements in communication and teamwork in the operating room27 and a wider improvement in safety attitudes.20,22,24–26 In a concurrent with this study evaluation of the impact of the introduction of the WHO SSC on patient safety climate in operating rooms, we did not find the hypothesized improvement in culture—although we did find that operating room teams reported being better able to handle a complex situation when the Checklist is used.34 We also anecdotally observed that the introduction of the WHO SSC drove behavior change, as the team members paused, introduced themselves, and carried out team briefings prior to the operative list. Such behavioral changes may precede deeper changes in organizational safety culture—which may in turn underline the sustainability of long-term appropriate implementation of a checklist and improved patient outcomes. These questions require longitudinal controlled research designs to be addressed.
This stepped wedge cluster RCT adds to this growing body of evidence on the positive effects on patient outcomes driven by the WHO SSC. We conclude that the use of the WHO Checklist prevents complications and reduces in-hospital length of stay and potentially also mortality across a wide range of patients undergoing simple or complex surgical procedures in hospitals within a well-developed and funded health care system.
The authors thank the Norwegian Knowledge Center for Patient Safety for collaboration with translating the WHO Surgical Safety Checklist. The study was endorsed by the Norwegian National Knowledge Center for Patient Safety and the Patient Safety Office of the World Health Organization.
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