Please Discuss: Should Doctors Who Make Mistakes Be Punished?

A patient who had an operation made things very clear…” credit=”Ian Turton/Flickr CC

The latest “Invitation to a Dialogue” feature in The New York Times opinion pages stems from a question posed by the former chief of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Paul Levy. It begins:

The tendency to assign blame when mistakes occur is inimical to an environment in which we hope learning and improvement will take place. But there is some need to hold people accountable for egregious errors. Where’s the balance?

Read the full invitation here; brief responses are due by Thursday to letters@nytimes.com, and the dialogue will be published in the paper’s Sunday Review. If you send your response to the Times but it is not chosen, please consider sending it to us by clicking on “Get in touch” below, and we can post our own compilation.

My two cents: Doctors have incredibly hard jobs and when one messes up — makes an honest mistake of the type I described in this recent post on misdiagnosing ectopic pregnancy — I don’t think they should usually be punished. It’s a powerful argument that punishment will merely lead to cover-ups rather than improvement. However, from the patient’s perspective, I think I have the right to know about these errors, by name, and what disturbs me is that there is so little accessible information on the most important aspects of medical quality — including which doctors mess up more than others.

Readers? Background reading:
True Transparency: Doctors Who Admit Errors, And How To Help Them
Oops! Mass. General Surgeon Openly Admits Performing Wrong Surgery

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  • Owen Minnis

    We already ‘punish’ medical practitioners. And right now anyone who has to have health insurance is too being punished, in turn. A significant chunk of what a doctor charges for services is due in part to them having to cover their own premiums, malpractice insurance premiums. Right now these are so sky-high that most doctors cannot afford them on their own, hence why group practices are now the norm, as that allows them to spread this cost among the doctors in the group. Still, this only helps so much. The cost of litigation is the largest driving force behind malpractice rates. So remember, every time you see an ad on TV or the side of a bus or the cover of the phone book, for an ambulance chaser saying “We’ll get you what you deserve…” think about your health insurance premiums and remember that, indeed, we are all, getting what we deserve.

  • Eliza

    That is not a straight black and white kind of question…we all make “mistakes” and that will happen for doctor’s too. However, when does a mistake become something more? What are the criteria for mistake? How many “mistakes” does it take before something different happens? Having been the one whom a “mistake” was made more than once, by more than one doctor and one dentist… my thinking is to report it to their boards…I have no way of knowing if the mistake with me was a one time thing or a habit…but if it is reported, then their board can track it. If i find out that the practitioner makes mistakes regularly then i can decide what route to take from there. As for the doctor who was going to do a procedure that was not the one I was scheduled for ..no harm was done because as i was being put out and stopped everything by screaming at them…they were not stopping. As for the dentist…i asked for a refund for a crown he put on but it didn’t cover the tooth…leaving a gap for decay. He sent me a check. Now i have to have it redone… not my favorite thing…going to dentists…

  • guest

    1) I want to know what grades they made in school. I don’t want anyone who made C’s in school in any endeavor.

    2) I’ve changed doctors more than once when I did not like their behavior.
    3) Get recommendations and check their stats prior to any surgeries.

    • habinero

      I would rather have a doctor that cares than one that had stellar grades. Good grades are no good if the doctor does not care about patients.

  • Danny Long

    posing the question with “Punished and mistake” is nothing more than an intentional set up.

    Painting systematic blatant arrogance, and psychopathic disregard for human life with systematic protectionism is NOT a mistake or an error. It is perverted, the industry has gone so far out of line, the only thing left for the public to regain control is criminal charges, and mandatory prison sentences with Buba.

    The medical community need look no further than their own mirror for permitting medicine to become a systematic criminal enterprise. American medicine self governing has become a global embarrassment.

  • SuzanShinazyRN

    Mistake, error, and punishment need to be clearly define here.

  • SuzanShinazyRN

    Someone that did not follow the standard ‘time out’ before surgery to make sure the correct site was operated on needs an intervention at the very least. If it was a one time event maybe counseling on attitude and ignoring safety protocols is in order. If repeated, the license needs to be suspended until a full investigation is done. And, always, the patient must be first and foremost taken care of, respected, told the truth, and compensated for pain, loss of income, etc. Anyone lying to the patient and hiding facts so they do not have to compensate for errors should be punished.

  • Middle Child

    They should be accountable just like a Pilot who makes a mistake is accountable.

  • Daniel Malis, Esq.

    I’m not in favor of punishing anyone who makes a mistake. Sadly, physicians confuse “punish” with “held responsible when they don’t exercise due care”. In our society, you make a mess; you’re accountable for it. Yes, their work is hard, which is why they’re only held to a standard of what a like minded reasonable physician would do. Jurors (and I have a good amount of experience regarding this) are more than capable, with guidance of expert witnesses, of determining what that standard should be.

  • Lois McNulty

    Punishment, as noted, could lead to coverups, but what about apologies? Whether the guilty doctor is sincere or not, he/she should be required to face the victim (or survivor’s family) in person and, at the very least, listen to a victim impact statement in person. My sister’s husband was killed at the age of 44 by an anesthesiologist’s mistake- a lethal dose of morphine following a successful appendectomy. The doctor never offered an apology and, after a long legal battle, the corporation which ran the hospital settled with my sister out of court. She accepted less cash (enough to cover her legal bills) in exchange for a change in some protocols. All she really wanted was an apology from the doctor to honor her husband’s memory. Following this ordeal, she left the profession of nursing in disgust.