Just as the first coronavirus reports were emerging from China in late 2019, the medical world was observing the 20th anniversary of “To Err is Human,” the seminal report from the Institute of Medicine that opened our eyes to the extent of medical error. The news media jumped on the popular aviation metaphor, that the number of Americans dying each year as a result of medical error was the equivalent of a jumbo jet crashing every day. Those numbers remain difficult to accurately quantitate, but we know that they are not small.
The conversation has now been broadened to include all preventable harms to patients, even ones that are not errors per se. As I set about writing a book on medical error, I wanted to see both sides of the story. I drew upon my own experiences as a physician but also interviewed patients and families to get the view from the other side. But I soon realized that the distinction between those two “sides” was rather fluid.
Midway through writing the book, my teenage daughter experienced a stomachache. My kids know that fevers, colds, coughs and sprained ankles do not get my pulse up, and that “if you’re not bleeding out or in cardiac arrest” they should seek medical sympathy from their computer programmer father. They often accuse me of ignoring their medical complaints altogether, but as a primary care doctor I know that most aches and pains of daily life get better on their own and are best left unobsessed about.
But this time I became suspicious of my daughter’s inability to find a comfortable position and so pulled out my stethoscope. When I heard complete silence instead of gurgling bowel sounds, I shuttled us straight to my hospital’s E.R. My correct diagnosis of appendicitis modestly redeemed me in my daughter’s eyes, though she was mortified that I chatted it up with colleagues.
Surgery was planned for the next morning, so I stayed in her hospital room overnight, reading the stack of journal articles I’d been reviewing for my book. Hospitals have always been a comfortable setting for me, but the familiar ward suddenly felt apocalyptic, with medical errors and harms lurking everywhere. The population of a midsize city traipsed in and out of my daughter’s room that night, each armed with potentially dangerous things to administer or extricate. And even if they were all batting 99 percent, the denominator of “things” was so enormous that some amount of error was all but guaranteed.
When the pediatric resident arrived at 3 a.m. to assess my daughter — after she’d been evaluated by the triage nurse, the E.R. resident, the E.R. attending, the surgery resident, the surgery chief, and then the surgery attending — I put my foot down.
“She’s on pain meds now,” I hissed, “so you won’t find any abdominal tenderness. And the ultrasound already showed an inflamed appendix.” The resident eyed me warily, clearly calculating the risk/benefit ratio of pressing her case with an ornery, sleep-deprived parent.
“But if you are going to wake her up, jab on her belly, and then come to the grand conclusion that she has appendicitis and needs surgery, forget about it,” I snapped. The resident backed off, and I flopped back into my chair to read yet another cheery article about medical calamities.
The surgery team came by with another option: giving just IV antibiotics, with no operation. With antibiotics alone, they said, there was a 50 percent chance of appendicitis recurring. Which meant that for half the patients, surgery could be avoided altogether. But we had to decide right away so they could know whether to book the O.R.
I asked the surgery resident how strong the data were. I wasn’t going to make a half-baked decision just because he was time-pressed to set the O.R. schedule. He groaned mightily but stood by while I searched up some studies. The data were preliminary but seemed encouraging.
Just getting a flu shot reduces my daughter to a sobbing mess huddled in my lap even though she’s a head taller than me. So I was sure she’d jump at the chance to avoid surgery.
It turned out that she had an utterly different take. The experience of getting an IV in the E.R. was so miserable that she never wanted to repeat it. The definitiveness of surgery was much more appealing than the possibility — however small — of going through this again in the future.
The next morning, that dangly tail of residual colon was successfully snipped. When my daughter was coming out of anesthesia, I asked her if she’d like some Toradol, the pain medication that the nurse was offering. “Tortellini?” she mumbled foggily. “Are we having tortellini?”
I was impressed, yet again, by the marvels of modern medicine, knowing full well that had this taken place a century earlier I might have been digging a grave for my child that evening instead of digging through the freezer for tortellini.
As a physician, I’m stunningly proud of the medical care our hospitals can provide. But during our stay as civilians, every aspect felt like harm waiting to happen. I’m sure I ruffled a few feathers with all of my questions, but addressing family members’ worries is part of the job — even if the family member isn’t a physician, and isn’t on the faculty of that institution, and doesn’t coincidentally happen to be writing a book about medical error while sitting at the bedside.
It’s not comfortable being the squeaky wheel. Being on guard for my daughter 24/7 was frankly exhausting. But once you are on the patient side of the stethoscope, everything looks like a minefield.
Of course, the burden should not have to be on the patient or family for ensuring safe medical care. That is the job of the health care system. But as we well know, the system has not yet achieved pristine perfection, so it behooves patients and families to stay engaged as much as possible.
The Covid-19 pandemic has surely demonstrated the professionalism of health care workers. But even the most dedicated staff need extra sets of eyes on the ground.
My advice to patients is to be polite but persistent. Don’t let unspoken annoyance deter you. Offer appreciation for the things that are going well — and acknowledge that everyone is working hard! — but plow forward. At the very least, ask what each medication is and why you are getting it.
And if you are too nauseated or too sleepy or too feverish, don’t rack yourself with guilt because you are not interrogating every staff member. Get the rest you need. Before you doze off, though, use some leftover surgical tape to affix a sign across your chest that says “Wash your hands!”
The onus is on the medical system to make health care as safe as possible. But patients and families shouldn’t feel shy about taking a forthright role. Keeping those jumbo jets from falling out of the sky is a team effort, and the team includes the folks on both ends of the stethoscope.
Dr. Danielle Ofri practices at Bellevue Hospital in New York City and is a clinical professor of medicine at New York University. Her newest book is “When We Do Harm: A Doctor Confronts Medical Error.”