A recent post in the New York Times health blog focuses on medical errors and the outcomes for both patients and providers.
Earlier this year, you may have heard about a nurse named Kim Hiatt who committed suicide following a medication error she made in the ICU that resulted in an infant’s death. Hiatt was suspended from the hospital and fired soon after. The pain Hiatt endured, knowing she had contributed to this baby’s death, in addition to losing her job, drove her to take her own life.
Most of us do not have professions where our mistakes can be fatal. Doctors and nurses hold a patient’s life in their hands with each surgery, medication, and procedure. Most providers have impeccable training and only the best intentions, but when errors occur, doctors and nurses receive all the blame, even though mistakes are often the result of a systemic problem rather than the fault of an individual. Though they may feel awful about their mistake, and truly feel their patient’s pain, patients rarely hear an apology straight from the horse’s mouth. Providers don’t usually apologize or explain mistakes directly to their patients because of fear of malpractice, and it’s not common practice in today’s modern medicine. This poor communication contributes to the lack of a meaningful relationship between patients and their docs, and this erosion of trust compromises the quality of care we receive.
In the future, we hope that doctors and nurses will feel more comfortable explaining their errors to patients and families. This will build a more trusting relationship between patients and providers, and improve quality of care in medical settings. We know our health providers are human, but since patients have so little face to face interaction with them as is, the failure to apologize for a medical error often causes patients to feel doctors simply don’t care for their well-being. It is clear from Kim Hiatt’s story that they do care and it’s worth recognizing all the good that doctors and nurses continue to do for their patients.
The author of the post, Theresa Brown, also a nurse, discusses a medication error she had made during an extended 12-hour shift (not recommended for a nurse, and an example of a systems issue that could lead to medical errors). Luckily, the error did not have any clinical consequences, but it pains Brown to think about the mistake’s potential to be a fatal error. The medical team at the hospital fully explained the situation to the patient, and reassured her that there was no resulting medical harm. The patient, who was relieved by the knowledge there was no harm done to her, felt sorry for Brown, and told the medical team that Brown delivered great care the night before, and she should not be punished for her mistake. Admitting to faults and involving the patient with a conversation about their care will go a long way toward repairing relationships between patients and their doctors and nurses.
Health Care For All and the Consumer Health Quality Council are supporting a bill that encourages medical providers to apologize following a medical error or unexpected outcome. Contact your state Senator and Representative asking for their support.