Dr. Sanjay Gupta on combating medical errors

Just how serious is the problem of medical errors, and what can be done to eliminate them? Thoughts now, from Dr. Sanjay Gupta:

I want to begin by stating the obvious: Doctors make mistakes. We're not perfect, we're human. Even the best doctors experience critical lapses. And when that happens, patients suffer.

Roughly 100,000 deaths a year are due to medical errors.

In my 20 years of practicing medicine, I've witnessed things that will stay with me forever. I will never forget when one of our most talented neurosurgeons operated on the wrong side of someone's brain.

It was an emergency - a young man had fallen and was bleeding internally - and everything moved into overdrive. Someone hung the CAT scans backwards. The surgeon took a quick glance, and began the operation. Holes were drilled, bone was removed. It was only when the outer layer of the brain was opened did the surgeon realize that something terribly wrong had happened.

The patient survived. The doctor later confessed to me that he spent hours throwing up after the case.

For me, the critical question is: How do we, as a profession, avoid repeating in the future what we've done wrong in the past? Learning from mistakes means admitting to them first, and that's never easy for doctors to do.

So there is a secretive and hallowed tradition in surgery: A weekly meeting at teaching hospitals across the country. It is a gathering where we openly discuss our errors.

I remember a doctor who presented a mistake so reckless and uncaring that I wanted to stand up and throttle him. I didn't have to. One of my colleagues doled out a much more appropriate punishment: He pulled a newspaper out of his pocket, and began reading the obituary of the recently-deceased patient. She was somebody's mother, she was somebody's daughter.

That doctor lost his medical privileges.

For two decades, I have been keeping notes on these meetings because I've wanted to learn from the mistakes others made. About ten years ago, my notes became the basis for a novel that I've just finished called "Monday Mornings." In the book, I put my characters where no doctor wants to be - confronting errors. For obvious reasons, it's fiction. But the issues that I take on are very real.

My hope in writing this book is to put medical mistakes under the microscope. I'd like to help people understand the challenges and the concerns that confront real patients and real medical professionals.

Our common goal. patients and doctors alike, should be to eliminate error. To do so, the medical profession must be vigilant . . . and the public must be educated. It takes all of us to build a better system.

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