The recent outbreak of fungal meningitis caused by a contaminated batch of steroid injections has led to widespread panic. Emergency rooms around the country are now being flooded with patients worried that they received one of the contaminated injections that have resulted in over 15 deaths and hundreds of hospitalizations. Unfortunately, this is not the first time that contaminated or counterfeit medications have cost lives. The World Health Organization has listed several instances when incorrect medications have been distributed to the public. In 2009, diabetes medication in China was packaged at six-times the labeled amount, affecting thousands of patients. In 2010, weight loss medications smuggled into the US contained hazardous substances that have been shown to increase the risk of heart attack and stroke. Not only did these counterfeit drugs harm the people taking the medications, but it also created a sense distrust between the healthcare industry and its customers. So what can be done to help heal the emotional trauma that comes with medical errors like faulty prescriptions?
In the past, the medical community’s attitude toward mistakes was similar to that of a kid who just broke their Mom’s favorite vase; just sweep it under the rug, keep quiet, and hope the blame is put on someone else. What medical professionals are quickly learning is that like child and the vase, it is much better to be honest and take responsibility for your mistakes. A 2004 study by a group at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center explored what would happen if doctors were required to admit to every medical error a they made to their patients. What the group found was that full disclosure of medical errors increased patient trust and satisfaction in their care and did not increase the number malpractice lawsuits against the hospital. In some scenarios, full disclosure even reduced the likelihood of patients seeking legal action against their healthcare providers.
Healthcare is a system based on people, and this inherently means that mistakes will be made. However, having people at the center of healthcare also means that these errors can come with humanity and empathy for those affected. Reversing the damage done by medical errors goes beyond the treating physical harm to the patient, it also includes healing the mental anguish suffered by the patients and their loved ones by being honest and taking responsibility for what went wrong. As the current meningitis outbreak unfolds in the coming weeks, I hope the companies and regulatory agencies involved remember this and are honest with their patients and the public.
Read this article in the New York Times on a new way for patients to report medical misconduct as part of the Affordable Care Act.