Doctors Discussing Medical Errors

Medical care today is increasingly complex and specialized. The days of having a single doctor who takes care of all of your health care needs–big and small–are long gone. Instead, it is not uncommon to have many different caregivers, each working on very specific aspects of your health. On one hand, this is obviously a superior model in allowing doctors to become incredibly skilled in certain areas, improving overall care and (hopefully) minimizing errors caused by professionals working in unfamiliar areas.

On the other hand, the segmentation of care makes it more important than ever for proper communication between medical professionals and with the patient. Asking questions, being extremely clear about a diagnosis or medical history, and similar matters are critical.

A recent article published in the New England Journal of Medicine touched on one unique aspect to that communication: doctors explaining errors to patients that were committed by other doctors.

Honest Communication
The article begins by sharing the human element with regard to this question, noting that “although a consensus has been reached regarding the ethical duty to communicate openly with patients who have been harmed by medical error,s physicians struggle to fulfill this responsibility.” In other words, sharing information with patients about past mistakes is obviously the correct thing to do, but, in the real world, many doctors are loathe to report on errors by colleagues.

The complex systems of caregiving today mean that many professionals will encounter this problem at some point. And a lack of very clear guidelines on how to handle the matter often means that patients are simply not told of the situation–only learning about it much later.

The article describes recommendations made by a group of professionals at a recent conference, from patient safety experts to medical malpractice insurers, discussing this very issue. They noted that perhaps the a primary difficulty is that the doctor who suspects the problem may lack access to the full range of information to understand the scope of the error. They may have suspicions of an error but remain unclear if those suspicions are strong enough to warrant more investigation or analysis.

In the end, the conference group explained that, at all times “patients and families come first.” Awkwardness or fear on the part of a physician cannot ever get in the way of communication that is in the best interest of the one seeking medical care. The story succinctly summarizes, “Simply put, when disclosure is ethically required, the fact that it is difficult must not stand in the way. Patients and families should not bear the burden of digging for information about problems in their care.”

Interestingly, the article even goes so far as to concede that patients who suffer unnecessarily as a result of a medical error are likely to need financial compensation to help in their recovery. Regardless of individual medical professional’s opinions on the medical malpractice system, that should never stand in the way of being honest with patients to ensure their rights are not adversely affected.

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