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Why Is Speaking Up When You Experience a Medical Error So Complicated?

You would think that encouraging patients to speak up when something goes wrong is a step in the right direction when it comes to reducing medical errors. If only it were that simple.

As Joyce Frieden points out in her article titled “How to Get Patients to Speak Up When They Experience a Medical Error,” patients are not always willing to do so.

Why Patients Don’t Speak Up When a Medical Error Occurs

Frieden cites a study from the Journal of Clinical Oncology that examined why patients who have experienced harm have opted not to report it. In some cases, patients wanted to put their energy toward healing. In others, patients felt like the situation was not serious enough to warrant speaking up about it.

However, sometimes patients felt that reporting an error would not do any good. Furthermore, in some situations, patients weren’t certain who was at fault.

Perhaps the most concerning reason why patients don’t speak up about errors is fear. They worry that they will be perceived as a complainer or a know-nothing. One reader explained, “When we tell the doctors they are wrong they suggest we see shrinks because it is all in our heads.”

Even worse, patients fear that a healthcare provider will retaliate against them. One reader shared her experience when she brought a problem with a post-mastectomy breast implant to the attention of her physician. “I was floored when he went off on a rant that included how stupid it was for a patient to annoy someone who would soon be using a knife on their unconscious body.”

The Difficulty of Physician Transparency

In 1999, the National Academy of Sciences published a report titled “To Err is Human: Building a Safer Health System.” Recognizing that health care is not as safe as it could be, the authors offered an analysis of the “epidemic of medical errors” that occur. At the time, this report was cutting edge, as it openly addressed medical errors and their consequences. This report put forth the idea that the healthcare system itself was broken and that it was important to develop systems that “make it harder [for doctors] to do something wrong and easier for them to do it right.”

Nevertheless, Thomas Gallagher, MD, executive director of the Collaborative for Accountability and Improvement at the University of Washington in Seattle, concedes that though there has been progress, “when something has not gone well, we’re [physicians] not always open. We’re not transparent; we’re not always learning.”

The article states that it can be complicated to be open when clinicians are advised by risk managers and defense attorneys to say as little as possible when something goes wrong. As a result, there is a strong tendency among health care providers to keep information to themselves. This results in medical errors going unreported and under-reported and ultimately hurts the patient. Systems are not changed, and more patients get hurt. This advice helps only the hospitals’ bottom line.

Another reason healthcare providers are not transparent about medical errors is that they don’t want to put their relationships with their colleagues in jeopardy when an error occurs. In their eyes, discussing an error that was made is synonymous with tattling on someone on the playground. 

Let’s not forget that we are talking about medical errors that can cause catastrophic damage and death. Medical errors that permanently change someone’s life. It should not be that complicated. Telling the truth about what happened and owning up to an error, medical or otherwise, is not complicated.

So, we are left with both patients and doctors who do not feel comfortable speaking up about medical errors. Medical errors continue to happen. More patients are needlessly injured by our broken healthcare system. Dr. Gallagher feels that open communication can help solve this issue.

Is Open Communication Around Medical Errors Possible?

The short answer to this question is yes. But Dr. Gallagher explains that it is important for all the stakeholders to recognize that transparency has the ultimate purpose of identifying problems and preventing them from being habitual.

To this end, Gallagher proposes Communication and Resolution Programs (CRPs) as a way to engender a collaborative patient-centered approach to medical errors. As Gallagher explains, “The organization has a responsibility for creating an environment where you as a patient feel like it’s safe to raise your hand if something has gone wrong…. We want to hear your concerns; we want to partner with you for solutions.” This sort of program will benefit all stakeholders, especially the patients.

At The Eisen Law Firm, we are not holding our breath that CRPs will somehow magically take away all the barriers that currently exist around the transparency of medical errors. CRPs are a step in the right direction but frankly, we need a leap not a step.

The Eisen Law Firm and Medical Errors

The Eisen Law Firm has been focused exclusively on medical malpractice issues for decades. Led by a Harvard Law School Graduate, The Eisen Law Firm understands both the medical and legal aspects of your case. We know how to hold doctors and hospitals accountable for their medical errors.

If you or a loved one has experienced a medical error, and it feels like you have not been heard, please contact our experienced Cleveland malpractice lawyers to discuss your options for legal recourse and for obtaining the compensation you deserve. To schedule your free consultation, call 216-287-0900 or contact us online today.