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Reducing Medical Errors in Healthcare

Patients have a role to play in reducing medical errors.

Key points

  • To reduce medical errors, the patient and provider must be in partnership and clearly communicating with each other.
  • Providers must be educated about a patient's cultural background, preferences, and philosophical concerns to reduce bias.
  • The provider's role is to educate, coach, and hold the patient accountable for achieving their health goals.
  • The patient must be open and honest with themselves as well as with the provider to allow for change to occur.

Every day, as a doctor in private practice, I listen to stories of patients' medical mishaps. I tend to weed out stories of botched procedures, ignored symptoms, and deep betrayals from medical providers. To be clear, each of these cases is unique because each of these human beings is unique. Unfortunately, the current medical system does not treat such humans as unique.

Many patients feel that they are on the conveyor belt of modern medicine, quickly being herded in and out without care and attention. I am not saying that the doctors were neglectful, but the system they serve conflicts with their duty to be a healthcare provider and serve the patients they trained to help. Constraints of paperwork or insurance regulations place further demands on clinicians, which are passed down to patients, and patients are left feeling unheard, neglected, and seldom served.

 Krakenimages/Adobe, Steele, used with permission
Young doctor woman with patient at the clinic covering mouth with hand, shocked and afraid for mistake. surprised expression
Source: Krakenimages/Adobe, Steele, used with permission

How do patients process the grief of being medically ignored when this happens? After all, they don't truly understand the complexities of the healthcare system, nor do they know the provider's limitations. Instead, they assume that the white coat automatically guarantees answers to their complex medical mysteries. Even still, they are further limited to the providers or healthcare system their insurance dictates, which can complicate matters even more as many healthcare practices have specific standards for practice that providers must satisfy to fit within the context of care.

If a patient leaves the office feeling let down, there are a few aspects to consider. First, in a recent study, it was shown that many medical errors occur as a result of communication failures. Are the patient and the provider communicating effectively with one another? Is the patient clearly explaining their health concerns, and is the provider listening for clues outside the typical considerations?

Suppose the provider is unable to satisfy the fears of the patient. Are they willing to be humble, admit their limitations, or even apologize for not being able to serve the patient they are entrusted to serve? Many patients want and expect not only explanations but also an apology after a medical error. Getting one can decrease feelings of blame, anger, and resentment as the provider admits to their humanity. Doing so can improve humanity, trust, and the overall provider-patient relationship. A recent study showed that even nurses would advocate for full disclosure of medical mistakes to the patient.

Biases exist in healthcare, with many providers not being educated about particular health concerns reflecting a person's ethnic background, cultural preferences, or philosophical concerns. They may even dismiss this aspect of care, which can leave patients feeling unheard, unseen, and emotionally wounded. Finding a provider who understands your cultural background and needs can be helpful, but if you have experienced bias, it is essential to educate the provider on your cultural needs. Providers need further education, and if they are not willing to gain that in a CEU class, patients can be valuable teachers.

The relationship with your medical or healthcare provider is a deeply personal one. It is critical for you to feel comfortable with your provider. Believe it or not, a provider works for you, and you are in partnership with the provider. The provider is there to serve you in multiple ways. The provider is there to educate you about your healthcare condition, coach you around what needs to be done, and hold you accountable for achieving your healthcare goals.

You will not always like what a provider has to say, but if they are thorough and spend time with you, they will likely not make a medical error. When providers are moving too fast and make quick assumptions, they often dismiss your symptoms and root causes, generalize your concerns, and provide you with a simple treatment.

Drobot Dean/Adobe, Steele, used with permission
Image of female doctor and young patient man talking in hospital room
Source: Drobot Dean/Adobe, Steele, used with permission

Trusting yourself and intuition is critical. If something doesn't sound right, feel right, or seem right, get a second or third opinion. Sometimes gaining different perspectives can inspire you to do something with your health.

Realize that there is a balance between being in denial and a medical error. Just because you do not like what a doctor tells you doesn't mean it's wrong, which is why the relationship between a provider and a patient is sacred. There is an unspoken trust between the two. The patient must be willing to hear and accept what is uncomfortable, and the provider must be willing to communicate so that the patient can hear uncomfortable news. This is a delicate balance. It requires a bond. A sacred connection. One that needs attention to detail.

It is estimated that medical errors account for as many as 251,000 deaths annually in the United States, making them the third leading cause of death. Error rates are significantly higher than in any other developed country, and fewer than 10 percent of medical errors are reported.

It is not always the provider's fault that an error occurred. In the partnership between the patient and the provider, transparency must exist on both sides, created by clear communication by both, removal of bias, and/or education about cultural and philosophical preferences. Feeling comfortable and cultivating a safe space with your provider that allows for education, coaching, and accountability is key to exchanging information.

Finally, trusting yourself and your intuition while receiving complex information is a delicate balance. It may not be easy to hear news about your health, but if you trust the provider, receive the information, as they are trained to support you in your healing process.

References

Anderson JG, Abrahamson K. Your Health Care May Kill You: Medical Errors. Stud Health Technol Inform. 2017;234:13-17. PMID: 28186008.

Choi EY, Pyo J, Lee W, Jang SG, Park YK, Ock M, Lee H. Perception Gaps of Disclosure of Patient Safety Incidents Between Nurses and the General Public in Korea. J Patient Saf. 2021 Dec 1;17(8):e971-e975. doi: 10.1097/PTS.0000000000000781. PMID: 32910040; PMCID: PMC8612886.

FitzGerald C, Hurst S. Implicit bias in healthcare professionals: a systematic review. BMC Med Ethics. 2017 Mar 1;18(1):19. doi: 10.1186/s12910-017-0179-8. PMID: 28249596; PMCID: PMC5333436.

Robbennolt JK. Apologies and medical error. Clin Orthop Relat Res. 2009 Feb;467(2):376-82. doi: 10.1007/s11999-008-0580-1. Epub 2008 Oct 30. PMID: 18972177; PMCID: PMC2628492.

Topcu I, Turkmen AS, Sahiner NC, Savaser S, Sen H. Physicians' and nurses' medical errors associated with communication failures. J Pak Med Assoc. 2017 Apr;67(4):600-604. PMID: 28420924.

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