ACP 2019: Caring for the caregiver after a medical error

April 11, 2019

When medical errors occur, patients suffer-but so do physicians.

As the prevalence of physician burnout rises, so too might the occurrence of medical errors. A recent study by researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine found that physicians with burnout were more than twice as likely to commit medical errors, even after adjusting for specialty, work hours, fatigue, and workplace safety. 

But the relationship between physician burnout and medical errors may be more cyclical than linear. “We value our relationships [with patients], so when someone dies or an error occurs … not only does it hurt the patient and the family, but we are upset as well,” says Tracey L. Henry, MD, MPH, FACP, assistant professor of medicine at Emory University in Atlanta. When left unaddressed, this emotional or psychological stress can further contribute to burnout.

Despite this issue, Henry says most institutions do not have a system in place to support physicians and other healthcare professionals in the event of a medical error or adverse patient outcome. As a result, many physicians avoid disclosing errors and end up internalizing their emotions because “there’s this machismo culture in medicine, and so a lot of times we are ashamed to ask for help,” she explains, noting that early career physicians tend to struggle the most with error-related stress because their clinical self-confidence is still developing.

At this year’s ACP Internal Medicine Meeting in Philadelphia, Henry will moderate an interactive panel discussion focused on helping physicians recover and grow from medical errors. The panelists will use programs currently in place, such as Code LavenderHelping Healers Heal, and RISE, to provide physicians with resources and best practices for coping with medical errors that they can take back to their organization or practice. 

Specifically, leaders should create awareness that medical errors happen and can happen to any physician, and then ensure that physicians are able to process their emotions in a healthy way. Henry recommends developing a protocol that includes nonpunitive teams debriefs following an error or adverse event and a peer-to-peer support network. She notes that it’s important for the individuals leading the debriefs and peer support groups to receive training in order to ensure they understand how to discuss the error without pointing blame or re-traumatizing the physician.  

“We’re all human. Everyone makes medical errors at some point in their career,” Henry says. “This is how you deal with it. This is how you move forward.”

Henry’s ACP 2019 session, “Medical Errors and How to Grow From Them,” will take place on Saturday, April 13 at 11:15 a.m.

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