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Collierville man’s book takes readers on path of placing healthcare decisions in their hands

“You need to put as much effort protecting yourself against medical error as determining which high definition television you’re going to buy” – Steve Harden

“Imagine,” Collierville businessman and writer Steve Harden said, “the reaction people would have if four wide-bodied airliners filled with passengers crashed every week. Would they hesitate to fly?”

The equivalent of that is what happens in hospitals across the country, Harden asserts. “The reason people don’t know? People die one at a time.”

“Let me state unequivocally that we (Americans) have the absolute best health care system in the world,” this unassuming hospital consultant said. “We have the best doctors and the best nurses. We also have the most complex system and it’s in that complexity that there is potential for disaster.”

Harden understands complexity. A self-defined ‘Type-A’ perfectionist, the Texas native attended the United States Naval Academy. He recorded more than 300 carrier landings while on active duty and acted as a TOPGUN instructor at the United States Navy Fighter Weapons School. He left active duty in 1985 and the reserves five years later.

A short term with a start-up airline lasted just over a year before his military contacts helped him land with Memphis-based FedEx.

Today, Harden sits behind a smallish conference table in a stylish, yet simple office. Aircraft models adorn a shelf, drawings and paintings related to aviation decorate the white walls. He wears an open-collared short-sleeve shirt, his back against a window framing a duck-laden pond. His hands are still yet he displays his passion in short, concise, well-rehearsed answers formulated by years of study and supported by a history of results.

He has been married for the past eight years to the former Gina Rutland, a woman he describes as a “Collierville rock star.”

“We can’t go anywhere without any number of people coming up to talk to her,” he said with obvious pride.

Between them, they are a blended family of five.

Still flying for FedEx, Harden also claims the title of business owner. He and fellow FedEx pilot Alan Mullen started the Crew Resource Management firm “Crew Training International” nearly 20 years ago. In 2005, they formed a separate company called Lifewings ( directed to safety projects in health care.

Most recently, Harden added author to his list of accomplishments, first publishing an industry-specific title “CRM, Flight plan for lasting change in patient safety,” before releasing his most recent effort.

“A few decades ago safety issues plagued the airlines,” Harden said. He noted in his book “Never Go to a Hospital Alone” that as recently as the 1980s, airlines experienced a series of accidents.

“Every few months there would be news of another tragic crash – 70 to 80 percent of the commercial airline accidents were related to a breakdown in communications from the pilots in the cockpit. Throw in weather-related cases and you have a disaster,” Harden said.

In the early 1990s, the Federal Aviation Administration and NASA started an accident improvement/reduction program based on improving how crews worked together in the cockpit. Many commercial airlines submitted programs to the FAA addressing the issue. Among them was FedEx, with Harden and his partner among the pilots involved in creating the curriculum.

Recognized as the most comprehensive and statistically successful of the programs submitted, FedEx was suddenly responding to other airline’s requests for information.

“My partner and I recognized that there was a business here,” Harden said in recalling his “Aha” moment. “We submitted a plan to create a CRM training school to certify pilots and FedEx authorized us to run with it on our own time.”

Two years later, Harden was training a division of the Air National Guard. From there came contracts with the United States Air Force, Navy, Marines as well as military representatives from Italy, Switzerland, Belgium and Canada among others.

A little more than seven years later and Harden got a call that would change his life’s direction.

“You know,” he said, his voice going soft as he reflected back on time. “You look back on your life and you can see the tapestry that was woven. If you would have told me that I would be working in emergency rooms, assisting hospitals improve their patient care years ago I would have… well,” he said his voice trailing off. “The good Lord took me on a journey…”

The then-director of Saint Francis Hospital reached out to Harden after learning about his success in creating airline communication processes and asked could he do the same here?

“He called and asked us to help in the emergency department with communication and teamwork issues,” Harden recalled. “At first I thought ‘what do I know about hospitals?’ but after spending three days and three nights in the emergency room I came to realize the similarities.”

Harden said both pilots and physicians are highly motivated, success-driven, type-A personalities.

He understood that emergency rooms were like cockpits, “hours of boredom punctuated with moments of sheer terror,” he said.

“We did some training for them and it was very successful,” Harden said. “We coached them on team work, on processes, on checklists. They cut the average length of patient stay in half,” Harden said.

Next came neurosurgery at Methodist Hospital. There the mission was to “count errors.” Creating a method to assure that the number of utensils, pads, gauze, etc. used going into an operation was the same coming out.

“Three or four years into this and we realized that there was a business here,” Harden said.

In 2005, LifeWings Partners was formed and since, he and his staff have worked with more than 120 healthcare organizations in the United States and abroad.

“Everywhere I went I heard stories,” Harden said in why he wrote his latest book. “People would come up to me and say, this is what happened to my father or, what should I do about this? I learned, from physicians, what hospitals should be used and how you can make that decision for yourself. In writing the book I flipped our knowledge of what happens in the hospital around to tell people what they should know about making their medical decisions.”

Harden’s book takes readers on a path of placing healthcare decisions in their hands.

From pointing out the truth about healthcare – approximately 238,000 patients dying from medical error the past three years – to unlocking the secrets of your hospitals report card – Harden takes readers on a step-by-step method to vet their general practitioner, their surgeon and their hospital.

“Most people,” Harden said, “spend more time deciding where they are going to go for dinner than determining their health care. The fact is, not all doctors or all hospitals are created equal.”

Harden calls his book an effort to “stack the odds in the patients favor.”

“I want to give them a resource so they can make an informed decision. I just want people to have great healthcare,” Harden said.

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