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Better communication may be key to reducing medical errors

Many medical errors seem inexplicable. How did the doctor miss the tumor? Why was the patient discharged too soon? A recent study by members of the faculties at Johns Hopkins Armstrong Institute for Patient Safety and Quality in Maryland has identified an often-ignored source of doctors' errors: lack of effective communication between members of a patient's health care team.

The study found that communication failures "are a common cause of patient harm." The failures are most often caused by the traditionally hierarchical structure of the medical profession. This structure inhibits the effective exchange of information by emphasizing a top-down power structure and a one-way transmission of information about the patient.

The authors of the study make several recommendations. First, all members of the health care team must recognize that each member of the team brings their own perspective to the tasks of diagnosis, treatment and care. Each must learn to understand and accommodate the perspectives of other members of the team. The authors point out that no single perspective is infallible for all patients.

Similarly, each member of the team, including physicians and nurses, must understand the limits of their own specialties and points of view. The study strongly supports the use of multidisciplinary teams to reduce the frequency of misdiagnosis, especially in hospital emergency rooms.

Achieving these goals requires practice among team members to learn communication skills and the ability to genuinely consider the points of view of other members of the team. Unfortunately, many providers are not initially open to what often seem to be drastic changes in the traditional hierarchical structure of medicine. Medical errors will continue to occur, and patients will continue to be harmed by communication failures among member of their treatment teams.

Source: HBR.org, "When Health Care Providers Look at Problems from Multiple Perspectives, Patients Benefit," accessed on June 29, 2017

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