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Could patients be safer with a changing culture among doctors?

It may be well known that doctors can be arrogant, defiant and dismissive about mistakes. After all, characters from medical dramas may drive some of this mystique, but there must be some truth to the notion in order for these characters to be believable.

Despite this, it would not be surprising if medical mistakes (especially near misses) were more of a common occurrence that what they are reported as. With an estimated 440,000 patients killed each year due to medical errors, it may be time for a culture change among physicians.

 The New England Journal of Medicine published an article establishing guidelines for doctors to handle conversations where an error is detected. The article is an important step in changing an ingrained culture where, doctors have developed a code of not confronting each other’s mistakes.

Under these guidelines, physicians are encouraged to talk about a colleague’s errors, albeit “directly and respectfully.” To manage professional relationships and maintain trust by patients, the guidelines suggest clear plans of communication about how to inform patients about medical mistakes so that trust in a physician is not compromised. The hope is that with additional lines of communication, more mistakes would be acknowledge and reported, but also teams will be better equipped to handle medical errors so that they do not rise to a level that would harm a patient.

It remains to be seen whether the new guidelines have resulted in gains with regard to patient safety, but it looks to be a much needed change in the culture among physicians.

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