UW researcher: Doctors need to discuss colleagues' medical mistakes

UW researcher: Doctors need to discuss colleagues' medical mistakes
Dr. Thomas Gallagher

SEATTLE -- It's an ethical dilemma that too often is swept under the rug: confronting a colleague about a medical mistake.

Dr. Thomas Gallagher, a general internist and UW Professor of Medicine and Bioethics & Humanities, is working to bring it more into the open.

He's the lead author of "Talking with Patients about Other Clinicians' Errors," published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Dr. Gallagher started researching this topic more than a decade ago.

"This is by far the most common question we hear from doctors is: What do I do if I'm aware of a colleague's error?" Gallagher said.

He said doctors worry about two conversations -- first talking with the patient and second with the physician who may have made a mistake.

"A lot of fear exists around just what I am going to say, how my colleague is going to react," Gallagher said. "Are they going to think I'm tattling on them?"

Gallagher says doctors need to get past such barriers.

"We're really encouraging these doctors to approach with a prospect of curiosity about what happened, rather than accusation," he said. "But you know these are difficult conversations all of us need to get better at having them."

He even created a teaching video for UW med students -- now included with the Journal paper -- that shows how such a conversation can take place.

In it, a young female doctor discusses a mistake made in reading a patient's EKG with a mature, male doctor. She asks him to take a second look and even gets a third doctor to read the test results.

"They're such hard conversations that most doctors just sort of pick up the ball and move it forward without talking with their colleague about what happened and that's what we're hoping to change," Gallagher said.

His paper spells out three guiding principles: The conversation between colleagues, a full explanation to the patient and how institutions need to work to support such conversations, and even make counselors available to help facilitate the process.

Getting these conversations out he says can help everyone learn from mistakes and prevent them from happening again.

For More Information:

Full Journal Article with UW Teaching Video