To Err is Human: Apologizing to a Patient After an Error

When it comes to medical errors, sorry shouldn't be the hardest word
When it comes to medical errors, sorry shouldn't be the hardest word

Mistakes happen. This is a simple fact. Even the very best and most careful clinician will, at some point, make an error. After all, we are human and humans err. The result of the error and how it is handled, however, can make the difference in whether a practitioner is sued for medical malpractice.

Dr. S, 61, was looking forward to the end of his shift. It had been a busy one, and the surgeon, who worked in a mid-sized hospital, was greatly looking forward to his vacation time which would begin when his shift ended. The clock was counting down, and Dr. S was completing his duties when he got a call from the gastroenterologist on call in the emergency department.

“I've got a patient down here that I was hoping you could assess,” said the gastroenterologist. “She's got an acute abdomen and I suspect peritonitis, possibly due to appendicitis.”

Dr. S began to tell the gastroenterologist that he was soon to be off duty, and didn't want to take on anything that might delay him, when the other physician mentioned that he may know the patient. It turned out that Dr. S was friends with the patient's brother, and so, as a courtesy, he agreed to examine the patient. 

The patient, Mrs. P, 45, was described by the gastroenterologist as a large, muscular woman. She had a history of Crohn's disease and had shown up in the emergency department with severe abdominal pain. She had been given intravenous morphine in the emergency department to help control the pain, but once she was transferred to a hospital room, she was only prescribed a low dosage of morphine which seemed to be inadequate in controlling her pain.

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