It is no secret that surgery is an incredibly complex, and risky procedure on the part of the surgeon performing it. There’s no escaping the fact that surgeries quite literally involve the cutting open of your body, and with that, so many things can go wrong. Fortunately, training to be a surgeon takes years of practice and study in order to master. Because of the complexity and risk involved, it’s become the number one priority for medical schools to ensure that their students master surgery, and that the exams, tests, and certifications make sure that the odds of them making a mistake in real life are as minimal as possible.
Unfortunately, everyone is human, including surgeons, no matter how well-trained they may be. Mistakes are inevitable in life, and everything you do, so even in surgery, errors would be an eventuality at some point. So now we ask ourselves? What do surgeons say when they mess up? What is the order of care in a situation like that, and what are the proper protocols for healthcare professionals to follow in cases of surgical errors, especially serious ones?
The Standard Protocols
When things go awry during surgery, national guidelines found in many countries recommend that the doctors involved give a full disclosure to the patients, and their families. This is to encourage accountability among healthcare workers, and also to help when it comes to possible future litigation. Common points to make during disclosure of surgery errors are explaining why the error happened, disclosing the error within a day after the surgery, expressing genuine regret that the error occurred, expressing concern for their patient’s welfare, and taking the necessary steps to treat any additional problems and complications that would result from the error.
But Do They Actually Follow These Protocols?
Unfortunately, recent surveys suggest that doctors and surgeons apologizing for errors is the exception, rather than the rule. One survey from the Centre for Healthcare Organization and Implementation Research, Veterans Affairs Boston Healthcare System states that only 55% of surgeons said they actually apologized or disclosed whether or not an error was preventable.
Another recent incident involved a woman who underwent a procedure where the surgeon accidentally removed the wrong body part. She is currently suing the hospital, not because of the botched surgery, but because the doctors and surgeons involved did not grant her the common decency to say “I’m sorry.”
So as we can see, while there are guidelines from various medical boards around the globe, those are just what they are. Guidelines. They are not strict by-laws, where if you don’t follow them, you’d receive disciplinary action, or even having your medical license revoked. They are simply suggestions that the medical board has deemed necessary for surgeons to say and do in the case of an error, but there is no actual incentive for doctors and surgeons to actually follow them.
So Why Don’t They Follow Them?
With this shocking information, we now start wondering; so why don’t they follow these protocols? Why would they dispense of guidelines that seem to be completely responsible, reasonable, and above all, crucial to the patient’s well-being?
Unfortunately, most of the reasons can be chalked up to a combination of arrogance and hubris. It’s no secret that the path to become a doctor and surgeon is one of the hardest career paths in the world. Years of blood, sweat, and tears may have given these individuals unparalleled qualifications to do incredible feats of medicine, but the hardships may prove to be a double-edged sword in some cases. Sometimes, the achievement of becoming a renowned surgeon has given some of them some form of a “god-complex” where they believe they can do no wrong, and their actions are infallible.
Thus, the thought of making a mistake, a thing that they have been trained all their lives to avoid at all cost, is literally unthinkable to them. Arrogance is rooted in insecurity, and perhaps they take this avoidant stance on errors because they don’t want to entertain the idea that mistakes can and will happen to the best of them, and that their patients aren’t always 100% safe.
The Stereotype Is Well-Known
Anyone who is privy to popular culture would know that the trope of the “arrogant doctor” is quite common. Two of the most popular examples of these tropes are Dr. Gregory House from the hit Fox medical drama House, and Dr. Stephen Strange from Marvel Comics’ Doctor Strange. These two are absolutely brilliant, yet profoundly flawed individuals who, in their infinite hubris has alienated them from their loved ones, co-workers, and even their own patients. As fiction takes cues from reality, it should come as no surprise that many neurotic doctors have inspired writers to make exaggerations of their personas.
What Can Be Done?
The issue of disclosure have been heavily debated amongst medical professionals and people for a long time. On the side of patients, disclosure would obviously help a great deal in their recovery, and that disclosure would help build trust with their doctors given their ability to take responsibility and accountability for their mistakes. On the side of the doctors however, they fear that disclosure may open the door to lawsuits by disgruntled patients whose lives have been affected by the surgeon’s error.
Overall, the main point of contention is understandable on both sides, however, one must consider the primary goal of healthcare: To treat a person suffering from medical conditions, no matter how big or small. Thus, it should come to pass that disclosure of errors must be the default course of action, no matter what. In the end, a surgical error may spell the difference between life and death, and thus any errors must be reported immediately to the concerned parties. Or, in the case a complication due to an error is discovered sometime afterwards, the surgeons responsible must step forward and offer their deepest apologies and compensation.
Hopefully, the law may be able to be refined in the future to protect both patients, and doctors alike. Lawmakers can make it so that doctors disclose mistakes and apologize for them to their patients and promise to perform a follow-up corrective surgery, and in return, patients may not sue against doctors and surgeons for negligence of duty when they do. In the end, doctors say “I’m sorry” when they mess up, and it must be mandatory.