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February 16, 2010

Dr Phil’s Private Eye Column, Issue 1255, February 3, 2010
Filed under: Private Eye — Tags: , , , — Dr. Phil @ 10:05 pm

Very human errors

Last year, MD met an Australian surgeon who tells his junior staff: ‘Your job is to stop me killing anyone.’ Nurses, receptionists, patients and relatives are all encouraged to speak up if they think something isn’t right, and it’s looked into promptly without knee-jerk blame. As a result, his cock-ups and complaints are commendably sparse and he has no shortage of applicants for his training posts.

The NHS has been trying to develop a grown-up safety culture for over a decade, but there is still a huge reluctance for staff to comment on each other’s work. A senior nurse who helped developed the national guidelines for the safe and sterile insertion of central venous lines recently observed a junior doctor putting a central line with a clearly dirty technique. The drapes weren’t in place and there was a danger he would introduce infection directly into the patient’s blood stream. But because it wasn’t her patient and she didn’t know the doctor, she didn’t feel in a position to comment.

The reticence of some NHS staff to offer constructive criticism and the unwillingness of others to accept it is at the heart of many clinical errors. When serious errors are analysed in detail, staff have often spotted something wrong but not said anything, or tried to raise concerns and not been taken seriously. In the infamous ‘wrong kidney’ disaster, both the medical and nursing students tried to point out the surgeon was operating on the wrong side. And in the death of Elaine Bromiley (Eye 8.5.08 ), nurses recognised that she needed an emergency tracheotomy after a failed anaesthetic,  and even brought the kit into the operating theatre, but didn’t feel able to interrupt the consultants.

Elaine’s husband Martin, a pilot, founded the Clinical Human Factors Group (CHFG) to help the NHS learn that guidelines and checklists are pointless without behavioural and cultural change. Under pressure, even the most senior doctor can panic, develop tunnel vision and go badly off piste, and without a team ethos that allows someone more junior to point this out, a disaster inevitably happens. The CHFG has now joined forces with the Patient Safety First campaign for a series of webcasts on the importance of addressing human factors in preventing medical error. One relatively simple idea is to encourage anyone performing a procedure to say: ‘If you think I’m going to make a mistake, please tell me.’ This also applies to patients and relatives. A change of pill colour or site of infusion is always worth querying. And given that 1 in 10 patients are harmed by their treatment, even a modest reduction in medical error could pay huge dividends.

Picking up errors after the event is also important. Pathologists are particularly vulnerable because tissue patterns are complex and subtle, and samples reported under stress are then stored for others to analyse at leisure. Specialists are also in short supply and this makes it imperative that pathologists work in teams and networks across regions, double checking difficult samples and seeking expert opinions. In Bristol, where pathologists in one hospital have tried to raise concerns about errors at another, the culture appears to be stuck in ‘how dare you question my reporting?’, rather than ‘let’s work together to make sure this patient gets the correct diagnosis and best treatment.’ Whether the current inquiry sorts it remains to be seen (Eye last), but the pathology departments of both hospitals could do worse than sitting down together for the Truth and reconciliation following serious harm webcast (Thu 4 Feb, 10.30-11.30)1

www.patientsafetyfirst.nhs.uk/Content.aspx?path=/Campaign-support/humanfactorsweek/.


  • Nurse Kitty

    I read this and thought – yeh – I was right about a diabetic patient but no-one would listen to little old moi.

    Looking forward to Bloomsbury on 8th June – won't have my off-duty until May 🙁 if the buggers make me work can I get the DVD early??

  • drphilh

    Thanks Kitty

    I always listen to nurses….

    DVD 1 should be out before election but hope you can make Bloomsbury

    Phil

    View Dr Phil's tour dates, books, DVDs and Private Eye columns at http://www.drphilhammond.com