We’re Only Human, Even Our Doctors and Nurses

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.
-Amelia Russo

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4 Responses to We’re Only Human, Even Our Doctors and Nurses

  1. Pingback: Protecting patients from medical apology programs « Health and Medical News and Resources

  2. victimrights says:

    This is a great post that illustrates that medical errors are often the result of systemic problems that push nurses and doctors into the cross-hairs of litigation. As a result, errors are often swept under the rug leading to the erosion of trust discussed in this post and lack of improvements in health care. We need to investigate alternative programs designed to fairly compensate victims of errors while also improving patient safety. One such program sponsored by the Massachusetts Medical Society hopes to serve as a means of compensating victims of medical mistakes without putting anyone through litigation and trial. Simply stated, the goal is to encourage hospitals and providers to disclose their mistakes to the patient right after it happens, and then offer the patient early financial compensation for his/her injuries, something patients and health care providers would feel good about. For more on this program, please see my 4/25/11 post at http://victimrights.wordpress.com

    • fender says:

      Sure and hospitals should also be compensated by junk lawsuits by 1-800 tort lawyers that throw absurd lawsuits upon the medical systems and hope a few stick. loser should pay all expenses which will retard this dart board approach for only real cases.

  3. fender says:

    The only issues not addresses here, which is important, is lawsuits that are frivolous that lead to increased medical costs and lawsuits in which there is bad outcome but no clear malpractice, yet awards given by sympathetic jurors who only see the results and do not have medical insight or scientific knowledge to determine that no malpractice occurred. Case in point, close to home , a 50 plus million dollar veridic was given to a family in conn with a child born cerebral palsy recently , the case in appeals and will tie up resources and money for years. the 1st trail ended in a deadlock b/c there was likely no definitive proof that the ob/gyn made any error that contributed to the outcome of CP. It was argued however that a early C-section could have avoided this, the same argument the former VP candidate john Edwards made back in the day trigging a surge in C-sections, costing healthcare millions and increased pain for the patients. Results since that time, C-sections rate have almost tripled , yet the CP rate have stayed the same, as CP causes may be multifactorial, genetic, environmental and prenatal care.

    Reasonable tort reform, already passed in Texas and California reduced the number of malpractice suites and lower healthcare costs in those states, in addition to attracting physicians in high risk fields to practice there which eases access to finding specially providers. Fear of lawsuits reduces access, drives up fixed costs and increases the frequency of defensive medicine practices as noted above in the increased frequency C-sections with no reduction in the cases of CP.

    Also even when hospitals “win” lawsuits they still cost, on average over 100K to defend. And unlike Europe the loser does not have to pay for this cost. ???? Yet when the tort lawyer wins he/she can add on their costs in addition the the 33% fee they charge of the award, leaving only a fraction to the injured party.

    The above may help but reasonable tort reform should also be strongly consider in Mass, as this area prides its self in health care leadership.

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