how willing are physicians to talk about medical mistakes

Chances are that you’ve heard the phrase “the thin blue line,” which is essentially a term used to describe the steadfast dedication that police officers have to one another, including perhaps an unwillingness to report when one of them has made an otherwise egregious error.

As it turns out, this term could perhaps be applied in the context of physicians as well, as countless studies have shown time and time again that doctors are unwilling to confront or report their colleagues for medical mistakes. This is significant, of course, when you consider that medical errors were recently listed in one study as the third leading cause of death in the U.S.

Why are physicians so reluctant to report when a colleague has made a medical mistake or, at the very least, even discuss the matter with them?

Experts say that it can be attributed to more than just professional courtesy; it is also due to the interplay of office politics and the long-standing yet unspoken tenet that you simply don’t confront colleagues, particularly those with more experience or who occupy a greater position of authority.

“The historical norm is that being a good colleague means not saying anything, having their back, when you think they’ve made a mistake,” said one professor of medicine and bioethics at the University of Washington.

To illustrate how this might play out, consider a situation in which a medical student may notice that a senior physician has made a prescription error; or a physician whose colleague not only has decades of experience, but who is also the physician’s boss, has failed to notice a spot on an x-ray that could potentially be cancerous.

The sad truth is that the medical student and the younger physician could potentially say nothing, fearing the consequences it could have on their careers. This would mean that the one patient could face serious personal injuries from taking the wrong dose or wrong type of drug, while the other patient could eventually be diagnosed with a potentially deadly disease that has advanced considerably thanks to an unreasonable delay.

In our next post, we’ll discuss the recommendations made by one group of researchers on how to overcome this lack of communication among physicians.

Remember to consider consulting with an experienced legal professional if you believe that you’ve suffered serious personal injury because of medical negligence.

Source: NBC News, “When docs make mistakes, should colleagues tell? Yes, report says,” JoNel Aleccia, Oct. 30, 2013

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