5 Things Doctors Have Learned To Avoid Medical Errors

Dr. Zachary Levine | August 16th, 2017

Error and misdiagnosed diseases affect nearly 25 per cent of Canadians. Here, five ways to avoid potentially devastating medical mistakes.


“To err is human, to forgive divine.” —Alexander Pope

Doctors are human; they make mistakes. The Canadian Adverse Events Study estimates that medical error affects nearly 25 per cent of Canadians. It is fair to state that most errors occur despite doctors’ best efforts to do what is best for patients. It is also fair to state that the results of medical error can be devastating, to the patient and also to the doctor. Medical errors are associated with inexperienced physicians and nurses, new procedures, complex care and urgent care. Poor communication, improper documentation and similarly named medications are also known to contribute to the problem.

The most commonly misdiagnosed diseases are: infection, abnormal growths, heart attack, blood clots and cardiovascular circulatory disease.

The Canadian Medical Protective Association and hospitals across Canada make it clear that a doctor must fully disclose when an error has been made as soon as possible. And most medical departments hold regular morbidity and mortality rounds, during which the cases of patients who had negative outcomes or died are reviewed by doctors to determine what, if anything, could have been done better, so outcomes improve in the future.

Here’s what the medical community has learned in terms of mitigating error.

1. Open and complete communication between doctors and patients, doctors and other doctors, and doctors and other health professionals is absolutely essential to preventing and to mitigating the effects of medical error.

2. The more experience and comfort a doctor has with a treatment, the better the outcomes.

3. Emergencies happen, and doctors have to do their best to handle them. Treatments 
that are not urgent should be conducted in a controlled way, with plenty of planning.

4. Checks and balances are essential—from nurses and pharmacists verifying medical
orders to checklists being used in operating rooms to make sure that nothing is forgotten (something doctors learned from airplane pilots).

5. Doctors have to try to recognize their biases and not allow them to cloud their
 decision-making. If a doctor is not able to objectively treat a patient, he or she should refer that patient to another doctor who can do so.

Dr. Zachary Levine is an assistant professor in the faculty of medicine at McGill University Health Centre and medical correspondent for AM740 (a ZoomerMedia property).

A version of this article appeared in the September 2016 issue with the headline, “House Call,” p. 48.