Patients will understand an honest mistake if the doctor tells the truth

It was 1976 and I was a junior resident in urology at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas.  I was assigned to a rotation in pathology where my job was to process specimens taken at surgery, dictate a gross description of the specimen and then place the specimens into the cassettes that would be used to make the permanent sections.  I was transferring a prostate biopsy, approximately 0.5mm x 10mm, and it slipped from the forceps and was washed down the drain of the sink.  I searched for the tiny sliver of tissue and even took the drain trap apart but could not locate it.  I felt terrible and told the director of the pathology lab who recommended that I call the urologic surgeon, Dr. Seybold, and report what had happened with the biopsy.

I called Dr. Seybold and he told me to meet him in the lobby of the hospital at 4:00pm.  I conjectured all morning and afternoon at what was going to happen at that meeting.  I even imagined that I would be reported to the program chairman and might be fired and asked to leave the program.

Dr. Seybold was in the lobby at exactly 4:00 and we walked to the business office.  Dr. Seybold asked for the head of the department and told them what had happened.  He wanted to repeat the procedure the following day and asked if the patient would not be charged for the extra day in the hospital or for the second OR procedure as this was a problem created by the hospital and was not the patient’s fault.

We then went to the operating room and met with the head of anaesthology and asked if they would not bill the patient for the anesthesia for the second procedure.   The anesthologist was very understanding and they agreed to waive the additional fee.

Then we went to the patient’s bedside to inform the patient of the event.  Dr. Seybold sat down beside the patient and explained that the specimen was lost. He did not blame me but did state that the specimen was lost in the pathology lab.  He told the patient that we could do the procedure as the first case the next day and that he would ask the lab for an expedited reading of the slide and that he would likely be discharged with the diagnosis two days later.  The patient was clearly disappointed but agreed to the plan of action as laid out by Dr. Seybold.

Dr. Seybold then took me to one of the private conference rooms and told me that what I had just witnessed was the proper way to handle a complication.  He told me that all doctors can expect to have complications and that mistakes will be made.  He said the best way to manage these issues is to be forthright and honest and tell the patients the truth and accept full responsibility.  Patients will understand an honest mistake if the doctor tells the truth.  It is when doctors make excuses or falsify the facts that patients become angry, hostile, and litigious.  Rarely will a patient become a problem if the doctor tells the truth.  It is this invaluable lesson that I learned as a young resident that I have passed on to medical students and residents that I have mentored.  This advice worked well many years ago and it is still good advice today.  I believe Dr. Seybold’s message will be helpful to every doctor who is confronted with a problem or a complication.

By the way, I accompanied Dr. Seybold to the operating and hand carried the tissue to the lab and carefully placed it into the appropriate cassette and then hand carried it to the technician to prepare the slides.   The final path report was benign and Dr. Seybold, the patient and I gave a sigh of relief.

Neil Baum is a urologist at Touro Infirmary and author of Marketing Your Clinical Practices: Ethically, Effectively, Economically. He can be reached at his self-titled site, Neil Baum, MDor on Facebook and Twitter.

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  • Carol Levy

    I was a victim of malpractice.  Not only did the neurosurgeon not apologize but the superior court of Pa. called his testimony at trial vs. deposition perjurious ( “We have little difficulty in concluding that Dr. Jannetta’s testimony at deposition was different than, or inconsistent with, the testimony at trial.”  Levy v Jannetta, CCP Allegheny County, GD 81-7689; appeal -J. A370017/92    Levy v Jannetta et al, No. 00150 Pittsburgh, 1992. settled, 1995).
    Other doctors protected him, nurses refused to testify stating, “I will lose my job.” 
    If more doctors were like you and your mentor there would be a lot less malpractice cases..  If doctors did not see patients as adversaries, from the moment they walk into the examing room, there would be a lot less malpractice: and when it did occur would be excusable, if the doc offers to do what he can to make it right.
    Carol Jay Levy
    author A PAINED LIFE, a chronic pain journey
    /The Pained Life, 30 years, and counting.

  • Anonymous

    Let me guess…

    This story is about a hospital in Never-Never Land where Peter Pan and Tinker Bell are on staff, right?

  • Anonymous

    Honesty works as long as the patient isn’t looking for his/her golden ticket to a life in a recliner in front of a HD Plasma TV.

    During a TAH?BSO, the surgeon nicked the trigone, buying me seven weeks with a Foley.  She said she was sorry, she was working through a ton of endometrial adhesions and went too deep.  Stuff happens.  I only would have gone nuts if she’d tried to BS me or cover it up.

  • moniqueramsey

    Dr. Baum – once again… you hit the nail on the head. Egos (naturally) get in the way too often – but we are all human (and that applies to doctors as well). ;) Patients appreciate being treated like a peer – and that requires honest and open communication on both sides. 

  • Jennifer Jilks

    This is the kind of heart-warming story we must read. Honesty. Please listen to our Canadian ER physician, Dr. Brian Goldman.
    A fabulous TED talk

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