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Elizabeth Cooney is a health reporter for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.
Boston Globe Health and Science staff:
Karen Weintraub, Deputy Health and Science Editor, and Gideon Gil, Health and Science Editor.
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Wednesday, October 24, 2007
Patients and doctors struggle separately with medical errors, Journal authors say
Doctors aren’t the only ones who can become paralyzed by guilt, fear and isolation after medical errors occur.
Patients and families also struggle with these emotions, Dr. Tom Delbanco and Dr. Sigall K. Bell discovered when they made a documentary about the impact of medical errors. They write about the parallel experiences in tomorrow’s New England Journal of Medicine.
“I had no idea, frankly, and I’ve been a primary care provider for 36 years,” Delbanco said in an interview. He and Bell are both from Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. “It had never entered my mind that family members could feel the same kind of guilt that we as doctors feel. It had never entered my mind they would say, ‘If only I’d been more assertive with the doctor before this happened’ or ‘If only I’d listened to my instincts.’ ”
Another surprise, Delbanco said, was how reluctant people are to speak up, afraid that they will get worse care, particularly if they are from disadvantaged immigrant groups.
Doctors don’t talk for three different reasons, he said.
Building bridges to injured patients would be a first step, after the taboo of mentioning mistakes is dispelled, the authors write. They also suggest teaching healthcare providers about preventing errors and how to respond when they do happen. Their 2006 documentary has been shown to third-year medical students at Harvard.
"Everyone involved needs an organized structure that restores communication and supports emotional needs," they write. "The yield from working in partnership could be enormous, both improving people's experience with medical errors and preventing harm from occurring in the future."