Physician learns about hospital errors the hard way

Doctors who aren’t directly involved in patient safety issues often sail through their careers without much awareness of how commonly errors and malpractice infect hospitals, clinics and medical offices. Then they become patients, and suddenly their world is turned upside down.

Itzhak Brook, M.D., has been a doctor for more than 40 years. He is an infectious disease pediatrician at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C. Then he got throat cancer a few years ago.

His cancer was successfully removed, but then it came back. He had to have his voice box — the larynx — removed, and the throat was reconstructed.

It was then that the errors began to pile up, or, as he puts it, “mistakes occurred at all levels of my care.”

Dr. Brook recorded these incidents before, during and after his surgery:

* Surgeons had failed to timely diagnose the recurrence of his cancer. It was finally observed by an astute resident via a basic procedure that allowed visualization of the pyriform sinus, which was where his tumor was located. Had his experienced surgeons done the same basic procedure, his tumor most likely would have been observed and removed much earlier.

* Surgeons mistakenly removed scar tissue instead of the cancerous lesion. A week after the surgery, pathological studies revealed that the tumor was actually farther down in the pyriform sinus. This error could have been avoided if frozen sections of the lesion itself, not just its margins, had been analyzed in the operating room. As a result, he had to undergo additional surgery to remove the tumor, which was more difficult because of swelling and changes to the surgical site due to the original operation.

* While still in the ICU one day after surgery, he experienced an airway obstruction and couldn’t find his call button, which had fallen on the floor. Though he was only a few feet away from the nurses station, he was unable to get the attention of staff but was ignored. (He couldn’t call out because he no longer had a larynx).

* In what was probably the most serious error, he was fed soft food by mouth far too early, which, following laryngectomy with flap reconstruction, can lead to failure of integration by the flap. It took 16 hours before the feeding was stopped, and only after Dr. Brook brought this to the attention of a senior surgeon. The error occurred because the order to start feeding was in fact intended for another patient.

In addition, nurses and other staff:

Did not clean or wash their hands.

Did not use gloves.

Took oral temperature without placing the thermometer in a plastic sheath.

Used an inappropriately sized blood pressure cuff (which produced alarming readings).

Attempted to administer medications by mouth intended to be given by nasogastric tube.

Dissolved pills in hot water and fed them through the feeding tube (thus irritating the esophagus).

Delivered an incorrect dose of a medication.

Connected a suction machine directly to the port in the wall without a bottle of water.

Forgot to rinse the hydrogen peroxide used for cleaning the tracheal breathing tube (causing severe irritation).

Did not write down verbal orders.

Fortunately, despite all these errors, Dr. Brook did not suffer any long-term consequences. Still, his experience made him realize that a hospital is the least safe place for patients, and that all hospitalized patients should have a dedicated patient advocate such as a family member or a friend at their bedside.

Dr. Brook writes extensively about his experiences as a throat cancer patient on his blog. He also lectures to medical groups to try to get doctors and nurses to understand the human costs of the epidemic of medical error.

You can also read Dr. Brook’s account of his hospital experiences in the Journal of Participatory Medicine.

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