Working in healthcare: Making mistakes and seeking advice

20161130080000, Dr. Jennifer Winter
All healthcare professionals should learn from their own, and others’ mistakes.
All healthcare professionals should learn from their own, and others’ mistakes.
Despite being a full-fledged doctor or nurse with a registered medical/nursing license in hand, when in practical training, all healthcare professionals become students once again. As a learner, one needs to be humble, eager to learn and have a thirst for knowledge in order to actually absorb any new learnings. Unfortunately, many young trainees lack the enthusiasm and will to learn, with many who complain when surgeries line up, when patients are admitted into the wards or when beds in the emergency room become occupied.

What they fail to realise, is that without patients, there is no opportunity for learning and progress, and the purpose of training becomes fruitless. Many also fear making mistakes - but mistakes are, in fact, one of the most effective means of learning. Having these occur too often however, is definitely not a good thing.

The price of an error

Medical errors can appear in many shapes and sizes. A doctor may have prescribed a patient with an unnecessary medication, or sent another home when he should have been hospitalised. A nurse might accidentally grab the wrong records, or dispense a few less pills. While many mistakes can be considered minor without dire consequences, there are some whose errors come with a large price, and such slips may result in considerable ethical, emotional and professional challenges for trainee doctors. Following a mistake, the healthcare professional may experience feelings of guilt, self-doubt, disappointment and even fear.

In any case, all healthcare professionals should learn not only from their own faults, but also from the mistakes made by others. They should analyse and reflect on the situation, and search for an appropriate solution to prevent such errors from re-occurring in the future.

Mistakes happen, but can be prevented

Most mistakes are caused by carelessness, which are usually preventable if the individual had paid closer attention to detail. However, some mistakes can be attributed to negligence by the healthcare worker.

Take for example, a physician who has been on duty for almost 24 hours, attending to patients in need, signing sheets of prescriptions and interpreting numerous amounts of investigative results, and there comes yet another referral, as informed by a staff nurse.

The doctor, at the peak of exhaustion, prescribes some medication without thoroughly assessing the patient.

Shortly after, the same nurse informs that the patient’s health as worsened - during review, the doctor realises that the situation could have been avoided had he been more careful with his assessment. Regret ensues, but this sort of scenario is sadly, all too common.

While, the mistake likely occurred because the doctor was tired and unable to maintain his focus, it is still important for doctors to be thorough and detailed when seeing patients. Doctors in training, especially, should adopt the routine assessing patients meticulously, and when in doubt, there is no harm in asking for help. A scenario like that above is, despite the dire circumstances, still not considered as acceptable.

Patients entrust healthcare providers to care for their well-being, and doctors, nurses and other allied health members should do what they can to be as vigilant as possible and prevent errors from happening. Foresee potential errors and pre-empt them before they surface. The best way to do this is put aside pride and differences and just ASK for help. MIMS

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White, Gallagher, "After the Apology—Coping and Recovery After Errors”, Virtual Mentor. September 2011, Volume 13, Number 9: 593-600.
Kramer, "Sleep Loss in Resident Physicians: The Cause of Medical Errors?”, Front Neurol. 2010; 1: 128.