Breaking the culture of silence in medical communities

Medical errors are, unfortunately, far from uncommon in hospitals today. In fact, a recent study found that doctor errors are responsible for over 400,000 deaths in America’s hospitals each year, making them the third most common killer of Americans today. Only heart disease and cancer cause more deaths.

Doctors are highly trained and strictly regulated. According to surveys, they often notice the errors that are made by other doctors. How, then, could so many mistakes still slip through the cracks?

According to some, the problem is entrenched in the culture of the medical community itself. Doctors strive to be courteous and considerate colleagues. Unfortunately, in the medical world, this means doctors rarely confront each other with when they notice a mistake and keep their silence when a medical error is committed.

This kind of professional courtesy may be all right in other professions, but in the medical world, it puts lives at risk. Hospital administrators, watchdog organizations and patients all need to be made aware when a doctor commits a medical error. Otherwise, the behavior will never be identified and corrected.

A new set of guidelines, released in the wake of the new statistics, seeks to rectify this aversion to confrontation. Whereas doctors now are reluctant to notify others when a colleague makes a mistake, the new guidelines call for direct, polite confrontation. If a doctor notices an error made by a colleague, that doctor is asked to speak to his or her colleague and talk about it.

It’s not clear how widely these new guidelines will be followed; certainly, they fly in the face of decades of medical culture. Doctors should remember, however, that the real victims of their silence are the patients. Victims of medication errors or surgical mistakes may end up facing a longer recovery or even permanent damage and never discover the true reason why. This is a great injustice and one that pushes the costs of a mistake onto the patient and does nothing to prevent the medical error from recurring.

NBC News, “When docs make mistakes, should colleagues tell? Yes, report says” JoNel Allecia, Oct. 30, 2013