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When doctors admit mistakes

November 12, 2010 | 10:16 am

Doctor It's almost hard to blame doctors for hiding their mistakes. Medicine isn't just a macho profession that too often leads patients to believe doctors are all-knowing, but the prospect of ubiquitous malpractice suits is enough to make a hospital cringe.

A Boston hand surgeon, then, has become a bit of a folk hero for openly admitting his error in the operating room -- in nothing less than the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine. Dr. David C. Ring was supposed to form a procedure on a finger; instead he operated for carpal tunnel syndrome. A perfect little storm of mishaps led to the mistake, including a hectic operating situation in which several doctors had fallen behind schedule. Language barriers led a nurse to think that a preoperative procedure had taken place when it hadn't.

Ring recognized his mistake about 15 minutes after the operation, told the patient about it right then and there and, with her consent, performed the correct surgery immediately afterward. Neither the hospital nor Ring charged the woman for any of the medical work.

Praise has poured in for Ring's willingness to tell all and the journal's decision to play an important role in publicizing a case of medical humility. His story is meant to act as inspiration to all doctors to embrace the new checklists and other procedures that hospitals have adopted recently to minimize errors. Of course, it would have been hard to hide the mistake once the woman discovered that her finger was as badly off as ever.

Ring might be showered in admiration, but the patient won a financial settlement as well.

Of course patients always deserve the truth. But to what extent can we expect this kind of openness from doctors when it almost certainly will be followed by a demand for money? Should there be more room for allowing mistakes as long as the patient has not suffered some sort of measurable injury, or is the anxiety of having two operations enough?

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-- Karin Klein

Photo illustration by Myung J. Chun Los Angeles Times

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