can having too many doctors actually hurt a patient

If a loved one was seriously injured or struck with a life-threatening illness and was receiving medical care from multiple teams of specialists, chances are very good that you would feel much more hopeful about their prospects for recovery. This is because you would naturally assume that these teams would communicate and coordinate their care efforts, drawing on their collective knowledge and combined experience.

As demonstrated by a recently published article in the New England Journal of Medicine, this isn’t always what happens.

The article, written by two Yale attending residents, discusses an incident in which a 32-year-old man was admitted to Yale-New Haven hospital with very serious and very mysterious symptoms, including a rash, kidney failure and lung failure.

According to the authors, even with a large number of specialists treating him, the man’s condition worsened because of something referred to as the “bystander effect.”

For those unfamiliar with this psychological phenomenon, it essentially describes the fact that human beings appear to be far less likely to offer any sort of meaningful assistance in an emergency if other people are present. In other words, the larger the group of people, the greater the “diffusion of responsibility.”

In the article, the authors hypothesize that the inability of the physicians to diagnose the patient’s condition coupled with the nine sub-specialty units teams focusing only on their particular area of the body served to create “more of a handoff” of responsibility and “ambiguity about ownership of the patient.”

“While our team sat in a remote rounding room pondering potential causes of the patient’s rash, another team of intensivists gathered in the ICU hallways to debate his ventilator settings, while yet another consultation team sat at a distant ICU desk, struggling to understand his multi-organ failure,” reads the article.

In fact, the article goes on to state that the man’s care only appeared to improve once a single physician was in the process of treating him.

“This cloud of medical purgatory lifted only when acute decompensation occurred, forcing the doctor-of-the-moment to act decisively.”

While the case cited in the article ended well enough, it’s nevertheless terrifying to think that physicians could somehow fail to work together to provide the necessary treatment. It truly defies logic to think that such highly trained professionals could shirk their responsibility to a patient.

If you or a loved one has been victimized by any sort of medical negligence, we invite you to visit our website to learn more about how you can seek justice.

Source: ABC News, “Too many doctors can hurt a patient in ‘bystander effect,'” Susan Donaldson James, Jan. 3, 2013

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