As we have seen, medical errors occur for many reasons. The Institute of Medicine report, which shows that the equivalent of a jumbo jet full of patients dies every day in American hospitals due to preventable medical mistakes, lays some of the blame on poor institutional practices. The Centers for Medicaid and Medicare have leveled criticism at an epidemic of “never events” — basic mistakes like surgery on the wrong body part or wrong patient that should never happen. But a recent report shows another factor that plays a role in many medical negligence cases: caregivers’ lack of respect toward patients.
The article, published in Academic Medicine by a professor of health policy at the Harvard School of Public Health, reports on patients feeling “belittled or ignored” by healthcare workers when they are disrespected in the healthcare setting. This is a common theme in medical malpractice cases that I have handled. Clients frequently report that the “doctor didn’t listen to me.” Medical errors often occur when physicians jump to conclusions about a patient’s condition and ignore signs or symptoms that are inconsistent with the working diagnosis.
The Harvard professor identified a number of other categories of disrespect that are prevalent in healthcare. They include overtly disruptive behavior (e.g., a physician belittling a nurse for a late-night call that results in a patient’s condition being ignored), demeaning treatment among co-workers that interferes with work (e.g., by teachers to medical students, doctors to nurses, etc.), “passive disrespect” due to apathy or burnout (e.g., refusal to wash hands), dismissive treatment of patients (e.g., refusing to return calls or permit questions), and “systemic disrespect” that stems from longstanding practices (e.g., the “code of silence,” doctors working long hours, secrecy in investigations into medical wrongdoing).
The Harvard researcher suggests a thorough overhaul of medical culture to change physician’s feelings of superiority, encourage collaboration, teach respect in medical schools and hospitals, and incorporate it into codes of conduct and performance reviews.