Tag: Medical errors

Truth or Consequences

While we are on the topic of medical errors, let’s see how doctors feel about disclosing them when the patient has not been harmed. Medscape recently surveyed doctors on this question and published the results in a provocative article by Gail Garfinkel Weiss entitled: ‘Some Worms Are Best Left in the Can’ — Should You Hide Medical Errors?” (A subscription is required, but it is free.)

To the doctors reading this, into which camp do you fall? To the patients reading this, what would you expect of your doctor in this kind of situation?

Some excerpts:

In response to the question “Are there times when it’s acceptable to cover up or avoid revealing a mistake if that mistake would not cause harm to the patient?” 60.1% of respondents answered “no,” and the remaining respondents were almost evenly divided between “yes” (19%) and “it depends” (20.9%).

Continue reading…

What Do Medical Errors Cost Your State?

GE Healthcare offers this calculator, based on data from the Society of Actuaries, to show the cost of medical errors for a given population. I inserted the population of Massachusetts from the most recent US Census to see what would pop up. Here is the result.

I suspect this figure of $260+ million is actually an underestimate because there is a lot of preventable harm that does not get counted as such. For example, we reduced our rate of ventilator associated pneumonia at BIDMC considerably over the last three years by rigorous application of the VAP bundle. Likewise at Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northhampton, MA.

As best as I can tell, VAP is not included in the statistics above. Chances are those cases previously would not have been counted as medical errors. They were just part of the mentality of “these things happen,” a belief by many that the current level of harm caused by hospitals is a statistically irreducible number.

Notice that I say “caused by hospitals,” and not “occurring in hospitals.” Until we take ownership of the fact that a great degree of harm that occurs in hospitals is caused by failures in the manner of delivering care, we will not make progress.Continue reading…

The Moral Component to Transparency

Many of you have asked if I intend to continue this blog, now that I am stepping down as CEO of BIDMC. Yes. (I’ll have to change the name. How about “The blog formerly known as . . . ” or just a simple “Not Running a Hospital”?)

Please expect a combination of commentary on current events and issues. But also please expect an occasional lesson or two from my experience of the last nine years, all offered in the hope of being helpful to others in the field. I apologize in advance if some portions seem self-aggrandizing or self-praiseworthy. I don’t mean them that way, but sometimes, to be historically accurate, I’ll have to include a few good things about myself!

Here we go. Act 2.

In a comment on a post below, author Charles Kenney asks:

Isn’t there a compelling — perhaps even overriding — moral component to transparency?

The answer, of course, is yes. Doctors and others pledge to do no harm. How can you be sure you are living by that oath if you are unwilling to acknowledge how well you are actually doing the job? As scientists, how can you test to see if you are making improvements in evidence-based care if you cannot validate the “prior” against which you are testing a new hypothesis? At the most personal, ethical level, how can you be sure you are doing the best for people who have entrusted their lives to you if you are not willing to be open on these matters?

Continue reading…

The Wrongologist


Author Kathryn Schulz recently provided a newspaper exposition of some of the themes of her new book, Being Wrong, Adventures in the Margin of Error. As noted on her website, Kathryn has “a credible (if not necessarily enviable) claim to being the world’s leading wrongologist.”

She finds fault in the way we find fault in ourselves. “Misunderstanding our mistakes . . . — seeing them as evidence of flaws and an indictment of our overall worth — exacts a steep toll on us. . . . [I]t impedes our efforts to prevent errors in domains, such as medicine and aviation, where we truly cannot afford to get things wrong.”

The book is engaging and thought-provoking.

Kathryn uses our wrong-side surgery experience at BIDMC as an uncommon example of using error to improve things, particularly when an aggressive target for error reduction has been established and when a commitment to transparency has been adopted.

She notes, “If you really want to be right (or at least improve the odds of being right) you have to start by acknowledging your fallibility, deliberately seeking out your mistakes, and figuring out what caused you to make them.”

(Bostonians can hear Kathryn in a reading this Friday evening at the Harvard Book Store.)

Paul Levy is the President and CEO of Beth Israel Deconess Medical Center in Boston. Paul recently became the focus of much media attention when he decided to publish infection rates at his hospital, despite the fact that under Massachusetts law he is not yet required to do so. For the past three years he has blogged about his experiences in an online journal, Running a Hospital, one of the few blogs we know of maintained by a senior hospital executive.

The Decade-Long Journey To NEJM Case 34-2010

The most popular article in last week’s New England Journal of Medicine did not tout the discovery of a novel gene, nor describe a cardiology clinical trial with a clever acronym as its title. Rather, it was the report of a case in which a surgeon at the Massachusetts General Hospital performed the wrong operation on a 65-year-old woman.

This was a breakthrough for the Journal – the first time in its storied 86-year history that the Case Records of the MGH published such a report. But it was not the first opportunity the NEJM had to publish such a piece… that occurred a decade earlier. The story of the path from then to now reflects the evolution of the patient safety movement. It’s a story I know well since it involved one of the lowest points in my professional life.

Before I share the back story, a word on last week’s article. David Ring, a prominent Harvard hand specialist, performed a carpal tunnel release on a patient who actually needed a trigger finger release – an entirely different operation. Showing great courage, Ring described his own error, with safety expert Gregg Meyer providing the color commentary.

As always, the pathophysiology of this misfire was a combination of active (i.e., somebody did something wrong) and latent (the system was a setup for failure) errors that jibed entirely with Jim Reason’s famous “Swiss cheese model” of “organizational accidents.”

Continue reading…

Contemplating Safety While Lying Down

I write about what it takes for us — whether we are sick or well — to find and make good use of health care today.

At the end of September I was hospitalized for surgery to remove a tumor in my stomach. Below is one in a series of five observations about my experiences since then.

“You have to get out of this hospital – it’s a dangerous place,” each of my physician friends exclaimed when they came to visit me during my recent stay after surgery for stomach cancer.

Jeez!  I know! Prior to my operation, I was more preoccupied by the possibility of medical errors than of the operation itself or the pain it might cause.  What if they take out my kidney instead of my stomach?  Or leave a sponge in there?  Or over-hydrate me so I drown? What if one of my many overnight vitals-taking-shot-givers infects me with MRSA?

The human imagination has wondrous capacities, especially when fueled by true stories of harm people have experienced due to medical errors.  I read closely the IOM report To Err is Human: Building a Safer Health System ;  I am horrified by the medical errors experienced by Sue Sheridan and impressed by her leadership of Consumers Advancing Patient Safety and  Diane Pinakiewicz’s at the National Patient Safety Foundation to raise awareness about the dangers patients face due to carelessness and lack of system-level controls.

Continue reading…


Forgotten Password?