“Not so long ago I finished 4 years of my life teaching aerobatics. If you ever wanted a time bound place to study humans under pressure this is probably one of the best places to be. And it wasn’t just the trainees under pressure!

At the start of the COVID pandemic the charity I founded, the Clinical Human Factors Group www.chfg.org produced a set of brief guidelines to support healthcare staff coping with the new day to day they experienced – unfamiliarity, sometimes a feeling of inadequacy; and a large degree of personal threat. The guidelines were subsequently translated by clinical colleagues into a number of languages and are available here. https://chfg.org/key-human-factors-messages-to-support-the-nhs

The guidelines were developed in cooperation with clinicians already involved in treating COVID both in the UK and Italy and supported by world class academics such as Professor Rhona Flin. But this was still a new world to everyone, so much of the guidance was based on work and evidence from other industries about behaviours that support working under pressure.

A couple of key messages included the value of briefings, to ensure you’re all on the same page regarding threats, “what if’s”, how things would be done and by who – especially applicable going into a hot/red zone. And the value of caging your chimp. Dr Steve Peters work “The Chimp Paradox” talks about the brain as having two modes, a chimp like emotional reaction and a more human thoughtful reaction. I wonder how many clinicians at the start of the pandemic rushed to provide support to a struggling patient without thinking about their own PPE until it was too late?

My time teaching aerobatics really expanded my experience, not always comfortably. But I’m even more convinced of the value of briefings, including quick mini-briefs when the plan changes. I’ve seen the chimp, in others and me but I’ve also learnt that the chimp can be managed. Even when your student has mismanaged a spin recovery in a way you’ve never seen before, hurtling towards the ground the key is NOT to react but calmly work out what’s happened first. In this story five seconds was all it took – a few hundred feet closer to the ground but getting the correct recovery was the only option.

These lessons aren’t just about COVID and aerobatics. Maybe that five seconds would have made the difference in my late wife’s case?”

Martin Bromiley OBE