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When a doctor is at fault

  • Published at 12:02 am March 28th, 2019
Doctor, Medical
One mistake can have fatal consequences BIGSTOCK

Health care professionals need to own up to their mistakes

There are no statistics in Bangladesh that show how many Bangladeshis each year die in hospitals due to preventable medical errors -- and this is probably because we are afraid of doing this estimation. Another reason could be because we really are not ferreting out the problem as we should. 

According to a study in 2016 by Johns Hopkins University, more than 250,000 people in the United States die every year because of medical mistakes, making it the third leading cause of death after heart disease and cancer. Unfortunately, we do not have any statistics like that. 

We have to accept that our physicians are not robots, and for this, they are not doing things the same way each time. Besides, patients do not tell their own stories to the physicians the same way each time. Therefore, mistakes do appear to be inevitable.

But we do not have the courage to accept our mistakes. 

Now, the question is: Why do the physicians need to admit their mistakes? Doing so may reveal the weakness of the physicians. That is why the physicians stand alone when their learning and beliefs are challenged fairly. 

Our physicians are dedicated and caring people, but they are human. So they can apologize and be humble for their mistakes. Definitely, nobody is proud of making mistakes, but one should strive to learn from what happened in order to teach somebody else. 

Physicians can point out other people’s mistakes, but always in a loving, supportive way so that everybody can learn, and learn willingly. However, this is not the kind of medical culture we have. Our culture stays with the belief that our health care system is foolproof, and there are no mistakes. 

Our medical culture does not have the practice to talk about mistakes. The physicians do not tell what really happened, or they do not share with their colleagues about their experiences about a particular case study where they could do better in terms of medication and practice. 

That is why, in our culture, a physician does not teach other physicians about what he or she did wrong during a particular procedure so that other physicians do not repeat the same mistakes. Even our renowned consultants with many degrees get uncomfortable talking about the subject of their mistakes.

The reality is, if you decide to weed out all the physicians who make errors, there will be none left. The physicians work in a culture of medicine that acknowledges that human beings run the system, and that they are bound to make mistakes from time to time. 

The patients are ignorant about the medical procedures for the diagnosis of a disease. The patients are also victims of over-prescription sometimes. This is becoming the usual practice by some of our doctors, because they are encouraged by drug companies to promote their products. 

It is, therefore, very important to compel colleagues to admit their mistakes. This way, they will always strive to learn, and can pass that learning on to others. 

A TED talk by Brian Goldman was what caught me off-guard, and I thought about how our own health care system, including doctors, could foster a culture of free and open reporting and voluntary acknowledgement of errors and omissions. 

The objective of this article is not to harm or blame any profession, but to bring to attention the need for identifying effective measures to prevent or reduce the risk of similar occurrences. 

Dr Ahmed Hossain is an Associate Professor in the Department of Public Health, North South University.