Today I saw a patient I haven't seen in four months. The last time I saw him, I ordered some bloodwork because he has hypertension. And one of the things I discovered in that bloodwork was diabetes. Which is a good catch; hypertension plus diabetes is a deadly combination, and requires careful management.
Problem is, I didn't catch it. I signed off on the bloodwork and had it filed. So he's been walking around untreated for the last four months.
Another confession. Last month, I saw a patient I had been treating for chronic back pain. At his previous visit, I'd started him on a pain reliever we sometimes use when anti-inflammatories aren't cutting it but we're nervous about going to opioids. This medication worked very well for him; he was quite pleased, and wanted a refill.
Problem is, I had overlooked the fact that this patient had a contraindication to starting this medication: a seizure disorder. I don't know how I overlooked this; it's his ONLY OTHER PROBLEM BESIDES BACK PAIN. I nervously asked him, "Have you had any problems with seizures?"
"Funny you should ask," he replied. "I've had two seizures since I saw you last, after not having any for two years."
You might be thinking right now, wow, DoctorMama is one of those BAD doctors. Why should I listen to anything she says? And I sometimes feel that way too.
I can tell you that I graduated with honors from a good medical school and I trained in a top-notch residency program. I got excellent board scores, and I keep up to date. I teach (and learn from) medical students and residents.
None of these things guarantees that I'm a good doctor, of course.
I can tell you that patients like me, and recommend me to their friends and family. No one has ever sued me (yet). I've never killed anyone, or caused them irreparable harm that I know of. My patients' blood pressures and blood sugars are better than the national norm, even though their socioeconomic status is well below average.
None of these things guarantees that I'm a good doctor, either.
And none of these things kept me from making those errors.
I know I don't make a lot of mistakes, and I know that everyone makes some. But I'd rather make none. Yet I don't know how this can be achieved.
Looking at the first case, there is a system meant to keep me from making such errors: abnormal results are flagged with an asterisk on the lab sheet. Thing is, every abnormal result is flagged, even ones that clinically make no difference. I sign off "abnormal" results as normal all the time. The only system that differentiates the abnormals that matter from the ones that don't is my fallible brain.
In the second case—the guy with seizures—there are a couple of places that the contraindication might have been spotted. First is my PDA; I often look up medications on the electronic database, and under this medication it clearly says "caution if seizure history." Thing is, I look up only the medications I'm unsure about or unfamiliar with. Which category does not include this particular medication. I KNOW you have to use caution if there's a seizure history; I just didn't THINK about it at the time. And if I were to look up every single medication I prescribe, I couldn't possibly see the number of patients I do (which isn't all that high to begin with). The second place this mistake could have been caught is at the pharmacy; the computer there might have flagged this medication as a problem, given that the patient was also filling prescriptions for anticonvulsants. And perhaps it did, but you've seen the printouts from pharmacies—they're pages long, and include every possible contraindication and side effect. Who can take those seriously?
The patients themselves could have helped prevent these mistakes. The first patient never called to ask about his results; if he had, it would likely have prodded me to take extra care when signing off—though again, no guarantee—and the second patient could have asked if the new medication would interfere with his seizure medicine. But neither patient is the type to do that, and besides, that's not their job. It's my job.
Bottom line is, I dropped the ball, twice.
In neither instance did anything terrible happen. The first patient doesn't take his blood pressure medicines, and wasn't very interested when I told him that he has diabetes. (I did tell him that I had missed it on the last bloodwork; he wasn't very interested in that, either.) He may surprise me and do a better job controlling his diabetes than he has controlling his pressure, but a delay of a few months is not going to make a difference anyway. The second patient didn't hurt himself when he had his seizures, and he doesn't drive. (When I told him of my mistake, he was just upset that he couldn't keep taking the pain reliever. I prescribed him opiates.)
Some doctors are resentful of systems designed to keep them from making mistakes (and worse, of patients or family members who question them). I'm not. It's really scary to have someone's health or life depending on my imperfect mind, and I wish I didn't have to fly without a net so much of the time.