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Postoperative Care And “The Black Swan”

This is a guest post by J. Paul Curry, M.D.

I was inspired when I lost my best friend 15 years ago to a common medical-error phenomenon: The lack of monitoring patients in the hospital.

Losing Mark altered my entire career in medicine and started me on a long journey of trying to understand how this particular problem happens. The journey has been eye-opening for me for many reasons, and probably most importantly by striving to learn and understand how the human brain can deceive itself into believing that thoughtful, rational, goal-directed tactics are always the solution to finding the answers to highly-complex enigmas.

Actually, the blockbusting solutions that change the course of our culture — how we do things — are most often totally unpredictable and discovered by accident by disruptive innovators, such as Dr. Larry Lynn of the Sleep and Breathing Research Institute, willing to tinker on their own and against the grain of thousands of smart people who dismiss this kind of outlier work as fantasy. To get just how often this happens and why, I’d invite those unfamiliar with Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s work to read “The Black Swan : The Impact of the Highly Improbable” and other books of his. This is what we’re up against today.

I was recently operated on, having a significant multi-level back surgery at one of the outstanding university spine programs in the country, supported by one of the elite anesthesia programs. I was told by the resident that I’d be going to the general care floor following my surgery, where I’d be checked on regularly. This was a given because I’m a fitness fanatic, but the resident wasn’t prepared for my followup questions. As I probed for more detail, it became apparent that no one in the organization had any inkling that nursing checks only occurring every four or eight hours on a patient fresh from surgery with patient-controlled narcotics was less than standard of care.

I told them I have mild sleep apnea and wanted pulse oximetry at minimum. I had to be upgraded to telemetry to get it. What’s more interesting is that there was so little understanding of this problem that they put me on pulse oximetry in a room where the only one who could watch it was me — the patient. Read more »

Medical Errors: Should Doctors Always Fess Up?

From the Medscape Medical Ethics article entitled “‘Some Worms Are Best Left In The Can’: Should You Hide Medical Errors?“:

Consequences aside, from a strictly ethical perspective, if a patient doesn’t realize that his physician made a mistake, should the physician fess up?

Before you jump to conclusions (as I did), look at the article’s three parts. It’s about a survey. The title is on the inflammatory side; the article is a window into physicians’ views. The introduction continues:

Evidence of the complex prisms through which physicians view these issues was apparent in the replies to four questions asked in Medscape’s exclusive ethics survey. More than 10,000 physicians responded to the survey in 2010.


– Mistakes that don’t harm patients. “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?” Sixty percent said “no;” the others split between “yes” and “it depends.”

  • I personally can understand this note from a survey respondent: “If there is a mistake that would have no medical effect but would cause extreme, uncalled-for anxiety, then yes,” especially since I know people (some elders, some young) who would indeed freak out, out of proportion. But, that’s a big judgment call.
  • I have a harder time accepting this comment: “Why shake the patient’s trust in the doctor for something that is irrelevant?” Irrelevant is a big judgment call, and I’d be really concerned about the natural human tendency to minimize the probable impact of a mistake — especially if a provider thinks it’s all about maintaining a patient’s trust, even when the topic is their own error.

– Mistakes that might harm patients. Ninety five percent said “no;” some still said “yes!” One commented: “If the mistake has not progressed to harmfulness, then it’s essentially a non-issue. Treatment correction takes place and you move on.” Another says if there hasn’t been harm yet, “I think a ‘wait and see’ approach is okay.” Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at*

Medical Errors: Discuss Them Or Switch Doctors?

Patients won’t confront doctors if they think there’s been a mistake. They’ll just find a new doctor, even if there’d been no medical error.

Researchers looked at adult visits to seven primary care practices in North Carolina during 2008. They asked patients about their perceptions of medical mistakes and how did it influence the choice to switch doctors.

Of 1,697 patients, 265 (15.6 percent) reported a mistake had been made, 227 (13.4 percent) reported a wrong diagnosis, 212 (12.5 percent) reported a wrong treatment, and 239 (14.1 percent) reported changing doctors as a result. Results appeared in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

But anecdotes cited by patients as mistakes were often normal diagnostic or therapeutic challenges. A typical scenario might be the patient reported symptoms, the doctor did not correctly diagnose it at first presentation, and a specialist or second physician offered a specific diagnosis. Other scenarios included medication trials or side effects from the prescription. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at ACP Internist*

Physician Burnout: Doctors And Patients Deserve Better

A new patient recently said he was referred to me after his last doctor had left medicine. His old doctor always looked unhappy and burned out, he noted.

Burnout affects more than half of doctors, according to researchers at the University of Rochester School of Medicine. Beyond mere job dissatisfaction, these doctors are emotionally exhausted to the point where they lose focus. They tend to be more depressed — perhaps one reason why doctors have a higher suicide rate than the general population.

While burnout can happen in any profession, the performance of stressed-out doctors can hurt someone else: Patients. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at*

“Gagging Orders” For Doctors?

From the article “Millions spent on doctor ‘gagging orders’ by NHS, investigation finds” in the “Health & Families” section of The Independent in London:

Hospital doctors who quit their jobs are being routinely forced to sign “gagging orders” despite legislation designed to protect NHS whistleblowers, it is revealed today.

Millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money are being spent on contracts that deter doctors from speaking out about incompetence and mistakes in patient care.

Wow. I’m not being snarky here — I really have no idea: Does this happen in the U.S?

*This blog post was originally published at GruntDoc*

Latest Interviews

IDEA Labs: Medical Students Take The Lead In Healthcare Innovation

It’s no secret that doctors are disappointed with the way that the U.S. healthcare system is evolving. Most feel helpless about improving their work conditions or solving technical problems in patient care. Fortunately one young medical student was undeterred by the mountain of disappointment carried by his senior clinician mentors…

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How To Be A Successful Patient: Young Doctors Offer Some Advice

I am proud to be a part of the American Resident Project an initiative that promotes the writing of medical students residents and new physicians as they explore ideas for transforming American health care delivery. I recently had the opportunity to interview three of the writing fellows about how to…

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Latest Book Reviews

Book Review: Is Empathy Learned By Faking It Till It’s Real?

I m often asked to do book reviews on my blog and I rarely agree to them. This is because it takes me a long time to read a book and then if I don t enjoy it I figure the author would rather me remain silent than publish my…

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The Spirit Of The Place: Samuel Shem’s New Book May Depress You

When I was in medical school I read Samuel Shem s House Of God as a right of passage. At the time I found it to be a cynical yet eerily accurate portrayal of the underbelly of academic medicine. I gained comfort from its gallows humor and it made me…

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Eat To Save Your Life: Another Half-True Diet Book

I am hesitant to review diet books because they are so often a tangled mess of fact and fiction. Teasing out their truth from falsehood is about as exhausting as delousing a long-haired elementary school student. However after being approached by the authors’ PR agency with the promise of a…

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