Saturday, July 07, 2012

When doctors make mistakes

Doctors are humans , and we do make mistakes . I’d like to recount the story of what happened when I made a mistake recently . I recently did a consultation for a new patient , and I miscalculated her age , so that I put it down as 41 instead of 31 . Now, age plays a very important part in infertility treatment, and since I had concluded she was on the wrong side of 35 based on my miscalculation , I advised her that she needed IVF treatment . At the end of the consultation, I routinely review my advise and the records with my patient , to make sure they have understood what I am telling them. When I started by saying, “ Given the fact that you are 41 , I think you need IVF “ , she stopped me and indignantly exclaimed, “ Doctor , I am not 41 - I'm only 31 !” I then realized my miscalculation , apologized , corrected my error and did a new consultation, and revised my advise . While  I was very embarrassed at the fact that I had made such a basic error, I could see the patient was understandably upset ! I am not mathematically challenged , and this was a mistake which I was quite ashamed to make. I could understand that the patient might feel that I can't be a very good doctor if I couldn’t even calculate her age properly ! She might wonder - What other mistakes is he likely to make ?  There is a high probability that as a result of this error , she will not come to me for treatment.

However, I do have another perspective on this . When I deal with other professionals who make mistakes. I'm quite willing to be forgiving . This is not because I am charitable , but because I expect that when I make mistakes, my patients will be understanding and sympathetic. I therefore treat other professionals the way I would expect to be treated.

I was pleased that I had been open and transparent – and that I have processes and systems in place, which allow me to check for errors , and rectify them immediately. If she was willing to look at the big picture, she would actually be impressed that we have these safety checks built in, to prevent and pick up errors , in case we make them.

Even more importantly, if she came to me , she knows that she's likely to get VIP attention , simply because I will feel bad about the fact that I goofed when I did her consultation , so that I will go out of my way to make up for this. This is why it actually might be a good idea for her to come to me , rather than find another doctor .

When mistakes occur , the best approach is to accept the fact that the error has occurred and then take whatever action needs to be done in order to fix the problem. Unfortunately , a lot of doctors attempt to cover-up errors, because they feel that if they own up to making a mistake , the patient's opinion of them will go down. My opinion of a professional actually goes up when he's willing to acknowledge that he's made a mistake , because he's willing to be open about it !

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2 comments:

  1. Dear Dr,

    That's too embarrassing or ? - not for you, for that poor woman. You guessed her age wrong, that too not one or two years, a whole 10 years in the wrong direction! If someone guesses my age a couple of years more, I think I will be mourning about it for 2 days :D A small trick-next time when you talk to patients, even if you know their real age, ask whether they are few years younger. :) For sure they will never go to any other doctor :D. Pathetic woman, I could understand her mental turmoil and why she is understandably upset!!!

    To err is human, to forgive, divine - patient's are mostly on the divine side :D But, I don't think any woman will forgive or forget this kind of mistake :)))

    Sometimes the only way to fix a mistake- is to make it twice. Try this next time when you meet her, say to her 'Sorry, actually you are 21 right? But I wrongly heard you are 31!!!' Her face will bloom with happiness for sure :D

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  2. Dear Dr Malpani,

    thank you for your encouraging comments. you blog echoes my feelings, that we should be honest and overboard about our mistakes. most patients would understand; and those who won't, wouldn't have anyway. the second type of patients we would be better off without.

    Dr Kundu

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