Those of us who work in patient empowerment couldn’t help but notice the results of a Harvard Medical School study released this week about what happens to a relationship between doctor and patient when the physician makes an error. The story was reported in US News and World Report the New York Times and other outlets.
Originally published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), the commentary called Guilty, Afraid and Alone: Struggling with Medical Error basically says that when a doctor commits an error against a patient, trust is eroded and doctors feel guilty. (Did anyone question this?)
Turns out that in many cases, the patient’s family members feel guilty, too, for not protecting their loved one. Even nurses who lost family members to medical errors reported feeling isolated, and fearing their loved one was going to receive substandard care due to the guilt of those who had imposed the errors. The words “fear” and “rude” and “mistreatment” polka dot the report.
What’s the bottom line? Once again we hear the benefits of apologies by those who have violated trust. Nothing new here at all. Groups like Sorry Works have been talking about this for years. Thirty-four states have enacted legislation to grease the skids. Those doctors who understand the dynamics, even for their wallets, are beginning to get the picture.
Test it here yourself. Another story published within days in Miami, about a 3-year old who died at the hands of medical test administrators — even though the family questioned the procedure. So very sad. And a good illustration of how we feel on the other end of the tragedy when responsibility is taken by the guilty party. Apologies are plentiful, restitution is being made. By the end of the story, you’ll feel bad for the offenders, too — although not nearly so sympathetic as you do for the family, of course.
Doctors and providers — please pay attention. Your patients truly need you to understand the guilt aspects of errors, and then step up to the plate. Your careers, and our health, depend on it.
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