Preventable medical error is a leading cause of death in the US today.
In fact, current estimates place the number of lives lost to medical error at between 210,000 and more than 400,000 a year in the US alone. That would make it the third-largest killer in the US, just behind heart disease and cancer.
Medical error is common but often preventable.
As physician Atul Gawande has pointed out, quality control systems common to other industries—from aviation to the restaurant industry—have evaded the medical profession. Patients and providers alike often suffer from institutional and structural forces that increase the incidence of error, even when those within the system act with the greatest integrity, skill, and good intentions.
"I'm sorry" is an uncommon phrase.
There are many reasons why medical apologies are rare. Physicians feel ashamed and scared. They are often told to stay silent by medical lawyers trying to protect against liability risk. And they aren’t taught how to apologize, which is especially hard to do when the people you hurt are the people you meant to help. Doctors are trained in many skills, like how to intubate a patient or how to calibrate medication dosing—but they are not trained in how to apologize.
This is a problem.
Because if anything is certain in medicine, it is this: Every doctor will make mistakes that end up harming someone. Not because they are incompetent or don’t care, but because they are caring for so many. Even the best doctors, like the best cab drivers, will cause an accident some day, for the simple reason that they are out there day after day, logging mile after mile, and humans aren’t perfect.
On February 6th, 2014, we convened a conversation about medical error.
The conversation drew an audience from across the Georgetown campus and the broader DC bioethics community. Physicians and lawyers, chaplains and businesspeople, many whose lives bear the mark of personal experience with medical error, all came to celebrate a semester of student work on the topic of medical error and to engage in a spirited conversation with patient safety experts that delved deeply into its many moral complexities.
We want to continue the conversation.
Next year, we'll explore a new topic; but our aim is for those inspired by our conversation this year to carry that passion forward. We want to inspire leadership for change. We've curated a list of further resources on medical error, which we hope you'll explore. Immerse yourself in this critical bioethics issue, and carry that knowledge on. We are all agents of moral change.