Openness a Crucial Part of Doctor/Patient Relationship

Author:
Jodie Cook
Senior Associate, Medical Negligence Lawyer
Date:
20/05/2021

Like many of us, last night I watched the Panorama documentary, ‘Hospital Secrets Uncovered’.

Having worked in the medical negligence field for around 20 years, I know only too well about the impact that making medical mistakes can have on patients.

But one big issue the documentary also cast a spotlight on was the lack of openness, both with the regulator and with the patient.

The sharing of information and findings with the regulator should be a huge step towards improving patient safety. But what about the lack of openness with the patient?

Owning a Mistake

I’m very thankful that I’ve never had to sit down with my treating doctors only to be told that my medical treatment hasn’t gone the way that they'd hoped because of an error along the way.

On a day-to-day basis I help those who have, so I can imagine that sitting down with a patient to discuss how things went wrong is a very difficult conversation to have, both on the part of the doctors and the patient.

But what it gives the patient is an unspoken assurance that the doctor is owning their mistake and will do what he or she can to put it right.

Owning a mistake lets doctors and patients have that important conversation about what went wrong, why it went wrong and, crucially, what the plan is to fix it.

That's not to say that it won't leave the patient shocked, upset, perhaps angry and with lots of questions. But they’ll know that something is being done to help them.

Doctors Must Put Patients First

I think those conversations must be hard enough, so putting myself in the shoes of the patients and my clients (as best I can) to learn after the event that not only were mistakes made, but the doctors knew of those mistakes, must be devastating.

Not only does that still bring with it the shock, upset and anger from learning that a mistake was made, but there is then an added layer of worry, anguish - and dare I say - betrayal, to learn that these findings were never discussed.

The doctors did not own their mistakes, or put the patient first.

The doctor chose not to be open and honest with the patient, so opportunities to offer treatment to try to put things right, or make wider changes to the systems and processes at their hospital, could have been missed.

Hospital doctor

Breach of Trust Can Hit Patient Confidence

Although I’ve, thankfully, never had to have those conversations, I speak regularly to those who have and I share the same trust in doctors that we all do, even as a Medical Negligence Lawyer.

I trust that they know what is best for me, that they’ll tell me what the treatment options are and that they’ll be honest with me about how my treatment is going. After all, I too am a patient.

If I learned that there had been concerns about my treatment and the doctors hadn’t taken the time to talk to me about it, I don’t know how easy it would be for me to trust those who treat me in future.

The failure of a doctor or medical team to be open and honest with me would mean that I questioned every bit of advice and every review of my care. 'Is surgery really the best option for me? The doctor said that my treatment was working - is it really working?' I would be second-guessing and questioning every discussion.

And that’s unfair to those who haven’t failed me and who treat me in future.

Why Being Open is Best for Patients

If I could speak to those who have chosen not to be open and honest with their patients when things go wrong, I’d say that we’re better equipped to deal with mistakes if you talk to us about it when it happens, so that we can work towards putting it right.

We know that unfortunately, in all walks of life, things happen. What we find hard to overcome is the fact that you knew and didn’t tell us and that’s when you lost our trust.

At least if those conversations take place, it means that us, the patients, are far less likely to lose our trust in the profession that we probably rely on most in life.

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