Credit: CMSRC/Wikimedia Commons

Credit: CMSRC/Wikimedia Commons

Numerous studies have told us that there are a significant number of medical errors that occur within our healthcare system. While many of the errors that occur do not lead to any long term harm to the patient, some can have devastating effect.

Sometimes, errors can occur due to inattention or lack of knowledge or experience on behalf of the doctor, nurse or another healthcare practitioner. However, from our experience in investigating and prosecuting hundreds of these cases, it is far more common that medical errors occur (or are greatly magnified) not through any want of knowledge or experience but rather through a lack of proper communication.

Communication takes many forms and is vital to each step of the healthcare process. The first thing any doctor or nurse does is take a history from the patient. If that history is not complete and relevant information is not communicated, heard or understood, the risk of medical error increases. When a family doctor sends her patient to a specialist for tests or consultation, relevant information needs to be communicated in order to allow the specialist to understand the issue and address it. Similarly, when the specialist or test provider reports to the family doctor, this too is vital communication.

Perhaps nowhere is the importance of communication more fundamental than in the hospital setting where numerous doctors, nurses and other healthcare providers become involved in the care of the patient. Each needs to know what the others have done, what tests have been ordered and what the plan or care is. Where important information does not get communicated, the risk of medical errors increases and patient care suffers. The introduction of the Surgical Safety Checklist form for use in hospitals is one great step toward improved communication, but more steps are needed because effective and timely communication can save lives.

Duncan Embury
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