Doctors aren’t easily forgiven if they make mistakes. Legal and financial consequences aside, medical errors – such as a misdiagnosis – can have devastating physical and emotional effects on both the doctor and the patient.
As such, avoiding mistakes altogether isn’t the only challenge patients face when it comes to choosing the right medical institution. They must also deal with situations where doctors are reluctant to admit fault, because they are too afraid of ruining their reputation or career.
So how can the medical community promote honesty between physicians and their colleagues and patients? Not by teaching them how to avoid mistakes, necessarily; rather, by teaching them how to make mistakes.
Medical Errors 101
In an effort to better prepare medical professionals for the stressful aftermath of medical errors, many medical schools offer experiential learning programs. For example, they use “standardized patients,” or trained actors, to help students practice delivering bad news.
This is one way that schools can teach young doctors how to deal with medical errors constructively, instead of encouraging them to shy away from disaster. This, experts agree, is the key to addressing the problem with medical errors as a whole.
“Instead of being appalled when mistakes happen, educators should teach young doctors to become curious about how, when, and why mistakes happen,” says Dr. Brian Goldman, physician and medical journalist. “I find that shame inhibits the exploration of medical error. Curiosity induces a state of calm and even pleasure that facilitates such exploration.”
In general, medical students face a lot of pressure from school. To succeed in such a demanding industry, they must demonstrate astounding knowledge both in class and in clinics.
“This perfection-demanding environment also is a product of society’s expectations that physicians must always be sharp, meticulous, and correct,” says Dr. Neha Vapiwala, M.D., of the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. “Rightly so: We are responsible for others’ lives. Still, no one is immune to error, and it is crucial to learn from mistakes rather than deny them.”
Why Do Medical Errors Happen?
As medicine – and technology – becomes more complex, people expect precision, and, thus, errors become less and less acceptable. Unwittingly, the public puts pressure on doctors to excel because we expect nothing less than the best. After all, doctors have the tools and knowledge to do extraordinary things in medicine.
Given all of this, it’s no surprise that medical errors have become a prominent issue in healthcare. Conditions such as birth injuries are caused and mistreated because of errors in judgment that could have been avoided. And lifelong injuries aren’t the only outcome – according to a prominent report, medical errors are also the third leading cause of death in the United States.
According to Medical Daily, these errors often occur because of “mental shortcuts.” These happen when doctors rely on 1 piece of information rather than weighing up several. Or they base diagnoses on memory or personal experiences – in other words, personal bias.
One reason for this is doctors’ extensive workloads. Doctors have limited time to stop and think twice about their actions and decisions. Another problem, research has found, is that doctors often lack quiet “time out” areas free of distraction. These would be helpful in allowing them the space to think carefully.
Is Acceptance Too Much to Ask?
Healthcare experts insist that creating a culture that is supportive and accepting of medical mistakes is critical. In turn, this would help medical students and seasoned doctors alike admit and accept their mistakes, learn from them more effectively, and prevent future mishaps.
To ensure doctors feel truly comfortable in making mistakes, Goldman says, they need their patients’ support.
“It is imperative that patients and the public accept that in a complex system, doctors will make mistakes,” he said in an interview with NPR. “I blame the public in part for forcing doctors into the false goal of perfection.”
But the fact is, the stakes are high. Medical errors can mark both the end of a doctor’s career and major life-changes for patients and their families. When putting their health in the hands of someone else, how can a patient wish for anything but the best outcome?
“Increased transparency and honest communication can preserve and even restore trust between doctor and patient,” Vapiwala suggests, “ultimately improving outcomes for all.”