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When good doctors make medical mistakes

When most people think of medical malpractice cases that are prosecuted, they tend to think of egregious errors made by clearly negligent practitioners. However, it's important to understand that often medical errors are committed by highly regarded physicians who would not normally be characterized as negligent practitioners.

One infectious disease specialist detailed a mistake he made many years ago as a practicing physician that still haunts him today. He feels that it is important to remember his mistake in order to never repeat it.

Mixing up patients

The doctor had a practice where he treated women with similar names. Their last names were the same, although their first names differed, as well as their prognoses. For purposes of clarity, we'll call them "Patient A" and "Patient B."

Patient A sought treatment for an abnormal blood condition to determine if she was getting sicker. Patient B visited her doctor for a regular check-up during which the physician ordered routine blood tests.

Staff at the doctor's thriving practice somehow switched the lab reports for the two patients. To the physician's surprise, he noticed that his ostensibly healthy patient's lab results indicated a possible leukemia diagnosis. He subsequently relayed that information to his patient, who was understandably quite upset.

It was the patient herself who discovered that the lab results were not her own when she read a different date of birth on the lab report.

The physician apologized profusely for causing his patient a day of stress and worry over the mistaken diagnosis. He then notified Patient B that she had taken a turn for the worse. While this news was of course unwelcome, it was not entirely unexpected given her knowledge of her condition.

How prevalent are medical mistakes?

According to the Journal of Patient Safety, there are between 210,000 and 440,000 patients annually who, while hospitalized, suffer preventable harm that causes or contributes to their deaths.

One study performed at Brigham and Women's Hospital and the University of Michigan in 2010 produced some interesting results. Researchers found that physicians who offer heartfelt apologies for their errors face fewer lawsuits.

One Illinois company, Sorry Works! Consulting, based an entire business concept on the principle of disclosing and apologizing to patients and their survivors for physicians' errors. The company's founder lost a sibling 20 years ago to medical mistakes. His company's goal is to reduce the likelihood of these errors and the litigation that arises in their wake.

One doctor posited that "It's often not bad individuals, it's poor systems that get in the way." Streamlining health care systems could play a major role in the reduction of medical errors, e.g., using diagnostic checklists and electronic health records that reduce the possibility of human errors. Employing these strategies can limit surgical delays, charting errors and medication mistakes.

If you or a loved one was the victim of a medical mistake, it's important to investigate all of your options to be made whole by seeking resolution and compensation.

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