Physician Errors

What is the difference between god and a doctor? God does not think he is a doctor!

You have heard this joke before. But it is not funny when you are a patient and your doctor thinks he is god, he knows it all and he can do no wrong. Well, do doctors make mistakes?

Errors in medicine is a touchy subject. It is a hot potato. Not many people want to touch it or swallow it. But recently, medical journals in Canada, USA and Britain have started to discuss the subject in the open.

In health care, doctors are not the only ones who make mistakes. All humans who work in the system make mistakes: nurses, pharmacists, physiotherapists etc. Even machines make mistakes.

And as we rely more on the machines to make diagnoses for us, the mistakes are increasing. False negative and false positive results from the multitude of tests we order are putting patients at risk every day. That is the price we pay for modern technology.

A report released in US last year says that medical errors kill about 100,000 Americans each year. The chairman of the 19-member panel that issued the report says, “These stunningly high rates of medical errors resulting in deaths, permanent disability, and unnecessary suffering are simply unacceptable in a medical system that promises first to ‘do no harm’.”

An editorial in the British Medical Journal says that studies in Australia, Israel, the United Kingdom and elsewhere, suggest levels of error and hazard in patient care that are no lower than in America. Canada is not immune to the problem. Death of infant Trevor Landry from a narcotic overdose in a Toronto-area hospital is one example of medical errors in Canada. Currently, in Canada, no mechanism exists to track medication or other errors to develop strategies to prevent their occurrence.

Are health care professionals superhuman?

No. But they are highly trained individuals. Each one comes with certain weaknesses and strengths. They are not all born or trained to do everything.

John Hubbard, in a book called “Measuring Medical Education”, says that two types of physicians make mistakes – a shotgunner, who prescribes and does procedures without adequate information and indications; and a timid soul, who makes diagnoses without adequate information.

But there are other reasons for errors as well which people fail to appreciate. Over worked and underpaid workers, inadequate resources, manpower shortages, political interference and personal and family stress does not provide a healthy environment for error free practice.

Is there a mechanism to prevent errors in medicine?

Yes. But the American report condemns the current fragmented system of handling medical mistakes, which relies on a combination of peer review, federal and sates regulation, malpractice lawsuits, and evaluations by professional bodies. The panel suggests mandatory reporting and public disclosure of serious medical errors.

In my view, there are only 5 ways to prevent errors in life: 1. Give your hundred percent to the task at hand, that is, be thorough 2. Do not do anything you are not comfortable with 3. Do everything neatly and clearly 4. Know your strengths and weaknesses and 5. Learn to say ‘I don’t know’.

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