Saturday, April 1, 2017

Mistakes, I've Made A Few

When I started medical school, I believed wholeheartedly that physicians were perfect.  I fully expected that, over the following 6-9 years of training, I would fill my brain with everything I needed to know about medicine and that I would learn how to use this information correctly, in every patient encounter, with 100% accuracy.

I'm not sure where I got this idea from.  Certainly I recognized (probably too clearly) that I was a fallible human being, yet I somehow thought that medical training would beat the fallibility out of me.  I envisioned the epic 28-hour-plus call shifts transforming me into someone perfect, someone who never wrote down the wrong drug dose and who never froze, uncertain of what to do, in the middle of a code blue.

It was a shock to me then, as I progressed through my training, to discover that my human imperfections didn't go away.  I certainly learned to be much better - to double check my orders and to write list after list in an attempt to never miss anything - but the promise of perfection has remained elusive.  Sometimes I slip up.  Sometimes I forget to do something important, or I fail to take something into consideration when making a treatment plan, or I misjudge just how sick the patient in front of me is.

Imperfection feels horrible as a trainee, but it still feels bearable.  As a trainee, right up until the last day of fellowship, there is always someone watching, someone double checking.  Someone who ranks higher than you on the list of people responsible.  Someone who retains the burden of final responsibility.

And then you graduate.  And now you are the person in charge.  And suddenly the weight of the work you do, the importance of every decision you make, seems ten times greater.  Double checking becomes triple checking.  Minutes of insomnia turn into hours.  Precious time outside of work, which is finally not quite as rare as it was in training, is spoiled by endless questioning and self doubt.

Did I screw something up?

Is someone going to die because of something I did?

And the worst part of it is, almost no one talks about it.  If you ever dare to talk to a colleague about your fears, they will minimize them, reassuring you that you're one of the good doctors.  You're not one of the ones who makes mistakes.

Almost no one acknowledges that we all make mistakes.  And that it isn't enough to learn how not to make mistakes or, more realistically, how to make fewer of them. What we really need to learn is how to cope with the fact that we are fallible humans, called upon to do superhuman work despite our inability to ever be superhuman.