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Medical Culture Change Could Help Prevent Medical Errors

Medical mistakes are the third leading cause of death in the United States. Unfortunately, the healthcare industry is traditionally not very forthcoming when it comes to revealing medical errors.

To help eliminate the taboo of reporting medical errors, a group of researchers recently published new guidelines in the New England Journal of Medicine for dealing with the mistake of a fellow health professional. The report acknowledges that while doctors may find it difficult to disclose the error of a colleague, reporting adverse events is critical to patient safety.

“Although anxieties about damaging collegial relationships loom large in situations of potential error involving other clinicians, a patient’s right to honest information shared with compassion about what happened to him or her is paramount. Simply put, when disclosure is ethically required, the fact that it is difficult must not stand in the way. Patients and families should not bear the burden of digging for information about problems in their care,” the authors state.

The new guidelines stress the importance of exploring rather than ignoring potential mistakes, with the goal of establishing what happened and, if needed, how to communicate with the patient. Under the recommendations, institutions also play a critical role overseeing the investigation and making sure patients are not kept in the dark.

“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 Dr. Thomas Gallagher, a University of Washington professor of medicine and bioethics who led the team. “We’re asking people to turn toward their colleagues in those instances.”