Punishing health-care workers for genuine errors not the cure

I AM a pharmacist at a public restructured hospital.

Last weekend, I attended a congress where one session focused on a recent case of a hospital pharmacist who was found negligent.

Many participants wondered how criminalising mistakes made by health-care professionals would reduce medical errors.

Let me be clear that this does not apply to individuals who act rashly or recklessly to endanger lives.

The vast majority of health-care professionals strive to do their best for their patients and to do them no harm. However, medical errors do occur due to complex factors.

Is it appropriate to criminalise such errors? Or would this "encourage" staff to cover up such mistakes?

Patients and their families want prompt and full disclosure, responsibility to be accepted, and to know what has been done to prevent recurrence of the error.

Therefore, attempts to reduce medical errors and near-misses should not focus on punishing individuals. Instead, transparency and openness about reporting of errors and a detailed analysis of the causes can offer useful lessons.

Without a "fair-blame culture", which acknowledges that it is rarely just individuals at fault when something goes wrong, we cannot have a culture where safety is the priority.

It is not just the patient who suffers as a consequence of medical errors. The staff involved are often emotionally devastated and may decide to leave the profession, which is a loss to society.

Can the Health Ministry clarify its position and explain if it is working towards decriminalising medical errors made by health-care professionals?

Health care is complex, risky and, increasingly, collaborative. Professionals need to be able to practise without fear of prosecution for genuine errors. A safety culture will not emerge when they are torn between reporting mistakes and incriminating themselves.

At the same time, it should be made clear that this will not affect public safety as the regulatory bodies for doctors, nurses, pharmacists and allied health professionals have adequate powers to regulate their members.

Khaw May Choo (Ms)

This article was first published on Oct 23, 2014.
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