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Medical Mistakes

Posted 10/31/2014

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  Mistakes happen. We all know; we all make them. Medical mistakes, big medical mistakes, however, are the stuff of nightmares. Many of us remember the death of Betsy Lehman, a 39 year old mother of two girls and Boston Globe health reporter, who died in 1994 after an overdose of chemotherapy drugs given during a bone marrow transplant (a treatment then in use for women with very aggressive or metastatic breast cancers). Betsy was my friend, so I especially remember this fiasco.

  Fortunately, most medical mistakes don't kill the patient, but too many do. There has been increasing conversation about transparency and apologies. Several studies have shown that future litigation is much less likely if the doctor (s) is honest about the error and apologizes. I am sure this is hard to do, especially for doctors with very big egos, but it surely is necessary. Even if an explanation and an apology don't prevent a future lawsuit they surely are the right thing to do.

  This is an introduction to a marvelous essay by Susan Gubar in the New York Times. If you are a longtime reader of this blog,  you know that I sometimes share her work. She is an English professor, now retired due to illness, who writes about her experience with Stage IV ovarian cancer. She writes beautifully. This essay is  titled Not Talking about Medical Mistakes. I give you an excerpt and then a link to read ore. Please do.

My oncologist (who is not a surgeon) said sadly, “Well, there was a lot of cancer.”

Maybe the operation should have been postponed until some of the malignancy had been reduced by preoperative chemotherapy? At least one physician friend believes the problem may have been a result of the hospital’s culture. At his institution, he informed me, a bowel specialist would have been called in to assist.

Truth-telling, in language I could understand, would have boosted my confidence in the postoperative care. Without fixing the physical problems, it would have relieved me psychologically. Like many people, I find it easier to forgive a human failure than an anonymous smokescreen. Why is it so difficult for patients and doctors to discuss surgical accidents and complications without violating professional codes of conduct and arousing fears of legal liability?


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