Bismillah,  alhamdulillah: Yesterday I had the opportunity to see a program on how motorcycle helmets are being redesigned from studying woodpeckers. A good motorcycle helmet is able to reduce the impact force on the head during an accident. It does so by combining a rigid outer surface with a soft flexible inner foam. This slows the impact slightly and makes a potentially fatal collision into a survivable one. Is it possible to make even better helmets for the future?
That’s where the humble woodpecker has something to teach us. It hits the side of a solid tree 22 times a second and exposes itself to a force greater than 1200 g and yet remains unharmed. 

Scientists have thus turned to the woodpecker to try and understand how it manages to survive such brutal force. What they have noted is that the woodpecker has four layers of alternating but complimentary structures. A rigid yet flexible beak, an elastic layer which wraps around the brain, a thin fluid filled space which absorbs vibration and a spongy bone between the brain and the bone. Each layer helps dissipate the forces and results in a miraculous design.

So what has this got to do with doctors and health system management? The elaborate structure that the woodpecker is blessed with has one aim. To protect its most valuable asset – its brain. The brain being a neural structure does all the thinking but suffers from vulnerability to shock and sudden changes in speed.

In a health system the most vital asset are the health professionals who work in it and have the task of seeing patients on a day to day basis. Doctors and nurses are like the central nervous system in this regard. This soft and vulnerable structure exists in a body called the health system. If the health system is flexible and well designed, looks after the needs of its ‘brain’ and does everything to dissipate stress  then it can become like the remarkable woodpecker in its efficiency. If on the other hand the health system is rigid and succeeds in transmitting outside pressure to its brain the consequences are unpalatable.

Health system managers need to be empowered and reminded to introduce flexibility in the system at every level. An endless stream of patient initiatives and jumping hurdles within inelastic short time periods will not result in the organic growth of quality but with an increasingly frustrated and punch drunk work force. 

Accrediting agencies,  such as the Joint Commission International and Accreditation Canada International, have the ability to promote this aspect of health system improvement and promote change by setting standards for flexibility of management and standards for protected accreditation awareness time for front line staff. 

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