A Better Way to Manage Medical Errors

Many of us in healthcare know medical errors are the third leading cause of death in the United States.

We are also aware that healthcare is a high-risk industry. But unlike other high risk-industries however, such as aviation and nuclear energy, healthcare has been too slow to adopt tools, techniques and behaviors proven to lower risk to patients. As a result, errors made by well-intentioned caregivers continue to cause unintentional harm and even death to patients.

In my last ETY blog post, I shared a medical error I was involved in that led to patient harm. I also shared how we hid that error from the patient, as well as other caregivers who worked in our hospital. It is said healthcare “buries” our medical mistakes. Fear of malpractice claims, fear of losing our license, fear of admitting we are fallible and can make a mistake; doctors are expected to be perfect, and this behavior is an unintended consequence of those unrealistic expectations. These are just a few of the reasons caregivers and hospital leaders try to hide or even downright lie when medical errors cause patient harm.

This approach, known as “deny and defend”, is a common legal and malpractice insurance strategy, not only in healthcare but in other insurance-based industries. Not only is “deny and defend” morally and ethically wrong, but in healthcare it also keeps us from learning and improving our care systems when these very unfortunate events occur. If we don’t openly talk about, and learn from our mistakes, we will never fix healthcare so that future patients don’t suffer similar harm. In our wrong-sided surgery error, no one wanted to discuss how we could have prevented that harm from happening again. All we wanted to do was bury it, hoping no one found out. And then what happened? Wrong-sided surgeries continued to occur over and over again for years afterwards.

Historically, the role of hospital risk managers has been to protect the hospital at all cost, even if it meant lying to patients and families. Refusing to answer questions, denying patients access to their medical records, not returning phone calls, or referring patients to hospital lawyers has been routine practice for many health systems. Many patients and families wait years to have their calls returned, and still fail to receive truthful answers on what really happened when there is a conversation. As many plaintiff attorneys have shared through the years, “There’s a lot of lying going on out there”. The only option patients and families often have to get their questions answered, is to hire their own lawyer and file a lawsuit against the hospital and the physician. Once both sides “lawyer up”, the only thing that matters is to win the lawsuit, regardless of the financial cost or additional suffering incurred by all stakeholders. No one wins in a medical malpractice trial.

Fortunately, some courageous health systems, hospitals and medical malpractice carriers are discovering there is a better way…


“Yes, Today is Your Lucky Day”

As we at the Academy for Emerging Leaders in Patient Safety (AELPS) prepare for our 13th year of Patient Safety Summer Camps for future healthcare leaders, I always reflect on a personal story I share the first day of each session to kick-off our week of work together. The story captures many of the reasons we have a preventable medical harm crisis today, such as: fear, devastation, lack of transparency, refusing to learn and improve from mistakes, lack of embedded human factors. The story also serves to show our young learners that we all are human and we all make mistakes, and helps set up a learning environment where they feel safe in sharing their own personal stories. Those who have only worked in healthcare a short time will have seen, or been involved in, an event that harmed a patient. For those that have followed our blog through the years, you have read some of these personal stories…mistakes that even harmed our own family members. I thought I would share my story with all of you.

Many years ago, I was involved in a medical error as a resident – a wrong-sided hernia repair that unfortunately harmed one of our patients. As the anesthesiologist, my job was to bring the patient into the operating room, put the required monitors on so I could make sure he was safe during the procedure, and then administer the general anesthetic that would keep him unconscious during his right-sided hernia surgery. I did that successfully and was focused on my job but, like others in the operating room, I didn’t notice that the senior surgical resident had taken the scalpel and made the surgical incision on the patient’s left side by mistake. Two minutes later the attending surgeon who had been detained with a question from another surgeon, came into the operating room, looked at the patient on the operating table and asked, “I thought this was a right-side hernia repair?” When the surgical resident realized her mistake, she passed out…the impact making a medical error can have on us as caregivers.

The surgeon closed the incision on the left side and then proceeded to fix the hernia on the right side. The patient now had two surgical bandages on their abdomen: one to cover the hernia repair, the other to cover our mistake. I dreaded having to see the patient in an hour and explain my part in the medical error that harmed him. I had never been involved in a medical error before, and was very nervous about the anger he might feel towards me and our team. When I went to meet the patient in the recovery room, I noticed he had a big smile on his face. This struck me as very odd. Before I could say anything, he looked at me and said, “Today is my lucky day”. I was dumbstruck. He continued, “Yes, today is my lucky day because under anesthesia my surgeon told me he discovered I had two hernias, one on each side, and was able to repair both at one time so I don’t have to miss another day of work to get the second one repaired”. It then hit me. The plan was to lie to the patient and cover up our mistake. I didn’t know what to say or how to react. After a very long pause, I responded, “Yes, today is your lucky day,” and I signed the patient out.

Not only were my six words to the patient “Yes, today is your lucky day” morally and ethically wrong, our lack of honesty and transparency kept us from learning how to prevent others from suffering similar harm. As a result, wrong-sided surgeries continued to occur far too frequently.

In defining professionalism in healthcare we use words like altruism, honor, integrity, respect, caring, compassion, and accountability to name a few. In telling my patient “Yes, today is your lucky day”, I violated every one of those principles we take an oath on when becoming a caregiver.