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If things go wrong

Even though we all know that to err is human, few of us can easily accept our own mistakes. This is probably more the case in healthcare than in most other occupations, because errors can have such serious consequences.

In a survey of MPS members who had experienced untoward incidents in their practice, almost all of them found that it shook their confidence and eroded their job satisfaction. Complaints from patients tended to be taken as personal attacks, with the doctor feeling angry, hurt and betrayed. Some of these effects lasted for years.

Complaints from patients tended to be taken as personal attacks, with the doctor feeling angry, hurt and betrayed

The intensity and duration of the emotional aftermath does not seem to relate closely to the seriousness of the error or the nature of the complaint; the crucial factor is the ability of the individual doctor to put the experience into perspective and seek out practical and emotional support.

Lessons can be drawn from this:

  • Assess the circumstances realistically – don’t blow an error or a complaint out of all proportion; remind yourself of all the things you do get right and all the patients who are satisfied with your care.
  • Talk the matter through with trusted colleagues and friends who can both empathise with you and give you a realistic assessment of the situation.
  • Contact MPS for practical assistance in dealing with a complaint or claim and for advice about handling the emotional repercussions.
  • Learn from the situation. If you did make a mistake, acknowledge it. Report it as an adverse incident and engage with your colleagues in developing strategies to prevent similar errors occurring in the future.
  • If you have been unjustly accused of substandard care, think what may have brought the accusation about – was it a communication problem, for example? How might you have handled it differently?
  • If a patient has complained about you, try not to react defensively by avoiding the issue or making counter-threats. The hospital will handle the complaint, but you should be prepared, if it turns out that you have made a mistake, to give the patient their due – a full face-to-face explanation, a sincere apology and an assurance that you will take steps to avoid a repetition of the problem.
  • If, after the complaint has been investigated, it is evident that the complaint has no foundation, you might still consider seeing the patient to explain the outcome of the investigation, give a full account of events and try to ascertain whether the complaint has been caused by a misunderstanding that you can put straight.
Patients expect a great deal from their doctors, not least of which are superhuman abilities
Patients expect a great deal from their doctors, not least of which are superhuman abilities. This means that you are almost certain to disappoint some of your patients some of the time. All you can hope to do in the circumstances is to try and turn negative experiences into positive learning opportunities, thus refining your skills and building, rather than eroding, your confidence.