Navigating a minefield

When I left the Telluride Patient Safety summer camp, I was full of inspiration and energy. I promised to be a safety disciple. To bring the message of patient safety back to Georgetown. In one week I would be directing the “Orientation Cup,” a team building activity for Georgetown’s 200 incoming first year medical students on their first day of orientation. And I promised to incorporate the message of patient safety into my activity.

Even before attending the Telluride summer camp, I had designed my Orientation Cup to consist of team challenges that would build teamwork and communication skills, which are essential for a culture of safety. The students would compete at four different stations: the frozen scrubs contest, medical charades, the egg drop challenge, and the minefield (my personal favorite). In the minefield, blindfolded students would tiptoe around beanbags (mines) as their seeing partners gave verbal navigational directions. The relay would end when all ten students had gone across the minefield and back, with five teams competing at once. I knew it was risky. The students would be blindfolded, and we were setting up our “minefield” on the top level of a terraced hill that was scattered with trees.

When the day of the Orientation Cup arrived (yesterday), I began the day with a “safety huddle” where I discussed a few of my safety concerns with the 15 volunteers who would be running the stations. For the four volunteers running the minefield, we agreed most of them would stand on the RIGHT (downhill) side of the minefield, to prevent students from tripping and falling.

Later, when the Orientation Cup was underway, I walked the course to observe. Everyone was having a great time! I happened to be at the minefield when one of the participants, his heart full of courage and team pride, put on the blindfold and sprinted straight across the minefield, veered to the LEFT, and then BOOM! smashed straight into a metal pole. I was speechless.

He was okay (thank goodness). I called a safety huddle with the four volunteers. We moved the boundary of the minefield away from the pole, balanced out the volunteers to have two on each side of the minefield, and made a new rule: no running. Nevertheless, later in the day one student ran into a tree, and another walked into a metal sign.

Safety precautions have to be scaled up according to the level of danger present in a situation. The fact is, my minefield game was much more dangerous than I realized. Nearby were a steep hill, a few trees, a metal pole, a metal sign, and a brick pillar. My 200 participants were literally blind to these dangers, and the competitive atmosphere encouraged them to make unsafe choices. I had only 4 volunteers to watch over the participants’ safety. If I could do it again, I would move the minefield farther from the obstacles, use huge mats to pad the obstacles, and use twice as many volunteers to ensure the participants’ safety.

I can’t say my first patient safety experiment went that well. But it was a learning experience.