Veterinary medical errors: Tell the truth, do it quickly

Veterinary medical errors: Tell the truth, do it quickly

Saying you're sorry may go against everything you've been taught, but being honest is the best option
Sep 01, 2011

Everybody makes mistakes. As the saying goes, "to err is human." At some point, you and your team will make a medical error that may alter the outcome of a case or threaten a patient's life.

Do you remember discussing this topic in veterinary school or at national conferences? In my 40 years as a veterinarian, it's only in the past year that I've seen anything written about how to handle medical mistakes. This is because during our training (professional school, internship and residency) we're taught that we must be infallible—we can't make mistakes.

Our education drilled into us that with appropriate data—blood work, radiographs and biopsies—we can explain disease and figure odds with some measure of precision. Clients want a percentage for a successful outcome with any procedure.

But no matter how much comfort we as healthcare providers take in the scientific method, the truth remains that life is dynamic, unpredictable and non-linear. Medicine is not black and white—it's a lot of gray.

I've been a surgeon for more than 30 years, and pardon my modesty, I'm quite good at what I do. But I make mistakes every day. Ninety-nine percent of these errors don't affect the outcome of a case. The other 1 percent is what we need to discuss and help ourselves and our team members manage. I've trained veterinary students, interns and residents to critique each case and be honest about their mistakes. For every medical intervention there's an expected outcome. However, there's also the possibility of unintended consequences. Veterinarians should discuss with each client the potential complications of any procedure.