German Doctors' Group Confesses to Mistakes

Posted by ProjectC 

German Doctors' Group Confesses to Mistakes

Der Spiegel
February 29, 2008

Surgical scissors left in stomachs, operations on the wrong knee, prescriptions of uppers instead of downers -- medical error is not just the stuff of fiction. Now a group of German doctors has decided to break a taboo and talk openly about their slip-ups.

The myth of the doctor who will make everything better is not just popular with patients but also useful for doctors. Now, for the first time, a group of German doctors wants to dispel it.

The German Coalition for Patient Safety, a non-profit association of health care professionals, institutions and patient organizations, has published a brochure that explains the frequency and range of medical malpractice in Germany.

"Learning from Mistakes" is the not-so-reassuring title of the pamphlet presented at a press conference in Berlin on Thursday.

Coalition chairman Matthias Schrappe said, "It's just a little brochure, but it represents a large step for the medical profession." Seventeen members of the coalition describe errors they've made on the job, ranging from late diagnoses of cancer to operations on the wrong knee. They claim such mistakes are most likely to occur early in careers or under time pressure.

"Turning a blind eye is no solution," said Schrappe, adding that he wanted to dispel the myth of doctors as "gods in white."

Resistance and Praise

The brochure estimates about 100 incidents of serious malpractice occur in Germany each year. It admits that 5 to 10 percent of hospital patients leave hospital with "unwanted results," stemming not from the original problem but its treatment. Most of these take the form of infections picked up in hospital, which happens at a rate of roughly 500,000 a year. Incorrect prescriptions are the second-most-common problem; Schrappe says roughly a third of these can be ascribed to professional error.

The brochure was two years in the making, due in part to weighty resistance from within Germany's medical profession. Schrappe told SPIEGEL ONLINE, "It wasn't easy. Many expressed concern and demanded that the legality be checked." But the response so far has been overwhelmingly positive "from patients -- obviously -- but also from doctors." The initiative got wide coverage in the German media this week.

The president of the German Medical Association, Jörg-Dietrich Hoppe, admitted to a near mistake early in his career. To a patient who had just tried to commit suicide with sleeping pills, he gave tranquilizers instead of a drug to re-animate him. The names of the two drugs were similar, and they stood beside each other on the shelf. But Hoppe identified his mistake in time to save the patient.

Hoppe says the objective of the coalition's initiative is to create a culture of mistake-prevention in hospitals and medical practices. Relevant, he says, is not "who is to blame, but rather what is to blame."

Federal Minister of Health Ulla Schmidt applauded the public confession and called on doctors and medical personnel to learn more from their mistakes.