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Your views: How to handle a medical error

A recent alleged overdose of cough medicine at a local clinic highlighted how a patient's complaint should be handled, especially if it arises from medical error.

Errors caused by doctors are rare, so it is difficult to have a systematic way of covering the subject in medical schools.

Most doctors learn how to deal with them only when they occur.

Of course, it is always better to learn from other people's complications, rather than to learn from your own.

Complications, when not handled appropriately, will hurt the doctor's reputation and may even lead to lawsuits.

In my career as a doctor, I have encountered and managed many complications and have devised the 5S approach to handling them.

  • Speedy acknowledgement: When complications occur, patients are usually in shock and may require urgent attention. It is important for the doctors involved to be contactable and to acknowledge their complaints.Brushing aside complaints as frivolous, or avoiding the patients altogether, will not help. If patients cannot contact their primary doctor, they will seek opinion elsewhere.
  • Shoulder responsibility: Accepting responsibility does not mean accepting blame for medical negligence. Many complications occur without any negligence on the doctor's part. For instance, when a patient develops a rash after taking a medication, it is probably a drug allergy. But this does not mean the primary doctor is negligent.The doctor should acknowledge this and inform the patient that the rash is the result of a drug allergy.
  • Sincere communication: It is important to be sincere and show empathy. The key is to listen to the patient's concerns and to make the patient's interest the top priority.
  • Strategic alliance: Get fellow doctors to help out. The priority is to get the best colleague to handle the complications. In the example of the drug allergy, I would bring in a good dermatologist.
  • Solve the problem: This is the most important part of complication management. Most patients understand that complications can occur despite good medical care and would move on once their problems are resolved. But if the problems are not properly managed and lead to more serious complications, patients would be upset and may take action against the doctor. Of course, handling the complaining patient is only the first step. The medical team involved must analyse and find the causes so the errors do not recur.

DR DESMOND WAI