Is Sexism Dangerous to Patient Safety?

It sure is. Work by Peter Pronovost and other pioneers in the patient safety movement has shown over and over that medicine’s culture of “doctor knows best” can be dangerous to patient safety and can cause episodes of medical malpractice. That’s because nurses (still mostly female) often see errors in the making and yet feel it is not their place to criticize or correct the (usually male) physician.

Pronovost, a Johns Hopkins critical care doctor, has a new book: Safe Patients, Smart Hospitals: How One Doctor’s Checklist Can Help Us Change Health Care from the Inside Out.

Changing the culture of medicine, to encourage nurses to speak up as valued members of the medical team, is critical to improving patient safety, Dr. Pronovost says.

I interviewed Peter Pronovost last year for my book, The Life You Save: Nine Steps to Finding the Best Medical Care — and Avoiding the Worst. One of the things I wrote about then was how the simple culture change of having all members of the surgical team introduce themselves by name at the beginning of the operation has been found to have a big impact on improving safety. Why? Because when people know each other by name, and not just by “nurse,” or “doctor,” they communicate better with each other, and good communications are vital in preventing hospital errors.

Patient Safety And Sexism In Medicine

I’ve been thinking about sexism in medicine since the news last month about the west Texas nurse who was brought up on criminal charges for having the gumption to report a doctor she thought was endangering patients to the state licensing board. The nurse was ultimately acquitted, as reported on this blog, but of course the outrage was that she was investigated and indicted in the first place (and fired from her job at the hospital where she had watched this doctor).

It’s no surprise that the nurse was female, the doctor was male, and the nurse’s accusers in the sheriff’s office and the local prosecutor were male too.

Of course, it’s not just the gender of the people involved, but their power. Doctors admit patients to hospitals and thus are “cash cows” who are often coddled by hospital administrators for fear the doctor will take his business elsewhere.

After the Texas “not guilty” verdict, there were some interesting comments from nurses about their experiences. One posted on the San Antonio Express newspaper web site was revealing:

I am from the east coast. There, the relationship between doctors and nurses is collegial. We respect one another as licensed professionals. I was amazed that the difference here in Tx. One simple example – if a patient being admitted for chest pain, and their blood test that shows they probably had a heart attack is positive, then standard of care is that they should be admitted to a unit that can do constant heart monitoring (telemetry). Where I am from, if the doctor gave written or telephone orders for a standard unit (without telemetry), it is the DUTY of the nurse to remind him/her that the patient has a positive Troponin and needs a telemetry bed. If you did not do that, and the patient had a poor outcome, the review committee would point the finger to the nurse that took the telephone orders for admission on not taking it up the chain of command until that patient had a telemetry bed. She or he would then face a peer review and be potentially turned into their state licensing agency to determine if their license should be suspended or revoked for failure to follow appropriate patient standards of care.

I heard a nurse very politely say “doctor, would you like a telemetry bed for this patient with a high troponin level”?

His response? “Can you put a nurse on the phone that knows how to take orders”?

The issue was dropped, right then and there, and the decision to let it drop was supported by the ER and hospital nursing supervisor, because they didn’t want to upset the physician. Now I have met very nice physicians here, but for the most part, this is the attitude of many physicians towards the nurses. Nurses hold a license, and have a duty to ensure quality and safety of care, in addition to taking care of the patient.This includes reporting even the SUSPICION of unsafe care. It is a shame when our ability to do so is threatened by situations like this.

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