How to Learn from Medical Mistakes

A column in the New York Times by Pauline Chen, M.D., relates how a colleague of hers named “Ed” crashed and burned on his way to becoming a general surgeon, seemingly because of his difficulty in learning from his own mistakes.

The blog comments by both doctors and patients are revealing. Many make the point that physicians can deal with the stresses of medical practice, and become better at their craft, by being less obsessed with perfection and more open to working with others in a supportive, teamwork environment. I particularly enjoyed a comment (No. 121) from “Susan,” that linked the issue to the recent story by Jane Gross in the Times about the Sisters of St. Joseph near Rochester, New York, who have figured out that putting the patient’s wishes at the heart of the enterprise makes for more humane and better health care.

Here is the comment I posted on the Times’ site:

Susan’s comment is right on target. A team ethic, and the recognition that “we’re all in this together” – patients included, goes a long way toward making the inevitable small mistakes a teaching moment rather than one step toward a disaster for the patient. And when disaster does happen, honesty is always the best policy. I represent patients in lawsuits against hospitals and doctors, and can say emphatically that the medical industry could greatly reduce its exposure to legal actions if hospitals and doctors would just respond with maturity and complete candor when mistakes happen.

One more change in philosophy could help reduce the toll of medical error. If patients were more involved at every step of the process, we could help nip a lot of disasters in the bud and get better care for ourselves and loved ones. There is much that we can do, starting with reading our own medical records. I just wrote a book about this called “The Life You Save: Nine Steps to Finding the Best Medical Care – and Avoiding the Worst.” Chapter One can be read at

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