Why Dr. Oops is So Silent

Medical mistakes are not something we can talk about.

By Kevin RR Williams

HEALTHCARE A girl pours herself a glass of milk and grabs a few cookies as a late-night snack while viewing a favorite television show. Awakened by commercials after dosing off, she stumbles to bed. In the morning parent asks which of several children left a carton of milk out all night. Fearing retribution from the timbre of the angry parent, the guilty girl reasons that another sibling may have also had milk after she dosed off so she remains silent. A similar fear of consequences pervades professions the children choose later in life.

Wipe away the makeup and actors aren't. Look behind press conferences and politicians aren't. Examining code behind the user interface and it's evident software programmers aren't either. None of us are… perfect. But it would appear that one profession pools perfection. Ironically, it is one that, following extensive training and internship, grants its alumni the right to practice… on patients. Yes, we're talking about physicians.

“I ordered the wrong test,” “I should’t have prescribed a different drug” or simply "Oops!" are not oft-heard phrases echoing in hospital hallways. A defiant Dr. Conrad Murray claimed he provided the best medical care even as his peers wagged their heads at the circumstances leading to Michael Jackson's death.

Flawless Performance?

It seems most doctors practice mistake-free, but studies indicate otherwise. A decade ago, the Institute of Medicine published "To Err Is Human," a ground-breaking report by some of the nation's most respected physicians focused on the epidemic of medical errors in the U.S. Their findings? As many as 98,000 Americans die every year from preventable medical errors. Ten years later, a million lives lost, billions of dollars wasted. Insurance companies continue to pay the exorbitant bills and patients pay high premiums or deductibles even when no cure is offered, treatment is ineffective or fatalities occur.

Taking this a step further, would a registry of medical malfeasance be helpful? Though it may be taken as sign of humility, how many patients would feel comfortable being cared for by a doctor with a series of medical errors? In many respects, it's in the interest of the medical practice or hospital to secretly deal with internal mistakes. The infamy of a medical professional was brought to light with the conviction of Conrad Murray. Fearing similar retribution, most doctors remain silent about even minor transgressions.

Patients are left to determine whether they would like a second opinion. We are taught to recognize that even when other doctor's take different approaches, the first doctor's treatment was not an error. Would you feel more comfortable with complete transparency and disclosure of medical mistakes?

Photography by Luis Alvarez licensed from iStock Photo.