MMA Immediate Past President Lyle Swenson, M.D., made unifying physicians and supporting the bedrock principles of the profession the focus of his 2011-2012 term as president of the Minnesota Medical Association. This blog chronicled his views and activities during his year as president.
Thursday, September 8, 2011
To Err is Human
Patricia Lindholm, MD, 2010-2011 MMA President
I believe that we all recognize the above title as a timeless adage, but also the title of the Institute of Medicine report that brought to public scrutiny the problem of medical errors in hospitals and the prevalence of harm that patients experience during their hospitalizations.The report jump-started a nascent patient safety movement that now appropriately applies to outpatient care as well.
An excellent article appeared this week in AMA Newsabout physicians who have publicly acknowledged their medical errors.They are using such disclosure as teaching opportunities for themselves and other health care professionals, and to highlight that systems improvement is the key to preventing errors.The “I’m Sorry” legislation that has been discussed in various states reflects the need to provide transparency to patients and to make amends when they are harmed by medical procedures and decisions.
The most interesting part of the article for me is a discussion of how to support physicians who have harmed patients through diagnostic or treatment errors.I trained in the era of “shame and blame” when one person was assigned total responsibility for an error.This led to a tendency to hide our errors from patients, hospitals and our colleagues.Physicians judge themselves quite harshly and question their general competence or even their personal worth when faced with an error.
In Boston at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a Center for Professionalism and Peer Support was created to reach out to physicians who are in the painful and lonely position of having acknowledged a medical error.A number of physician peer advisors are available to reach out to their colleagues and ask about their wellbeing and offer support.Similar programs have developed at medical centers around the country.A compassionate and human approach to such colleagues can save careers as well as the lives of the physicians who are supported.
Several years ago when I served on the board of MMIC (the professional liability company started by MMA some years back) we started the Physician Litigation Support Program.Each physician facing a claim is personally contacted by a psychiatrist whose only purpose is to provide support and education to the insured.We have received many thanks from recipients of this caring program.
If your training program or health care organization does not have a mechanism to support colleagues who have made errors or who face litigation, what can you do to get such a program started?I suggest that the first step is speaking up and insisting that collegial support programs be proactive, supported and expected.You should expect to hear from colleagues who want to work with you to make good work happen.I suspect you will have richer friendships and happier patients as a result.