Sunday, March 15, 2015

An NHS GP asks, "How long do I continue to push my luck?"

David Shepherd has been a GP with the National Health Service for over two decades and also trains doctors in that profession.  He recently published this story:

I made a serious drug error last year. There, I said it - confession is good for the soul. Fortunately, no one was harmed but this was the first time in 23 years as a GP that I got it that badly wrong. The story is worth telling in detail as it contains important lessons for me, my practice and the wider NHS.

 In a nutshell I prescribed an antibiotic (No, that wasn't the sin – there was a genuine indication!) to a frail patient in a care home whose records unambiguously contained a correctly coded allergy to that drug. The drug was prescribed, dispensed and the full course given before the error came to light. Had the patient had a significant reaction, in his/her frail state, it could easily have caused death or hospital admission.

David has a thoughtful protocol he applies regularly: 

This has served me well for 23 years.

As we review the rest of the article, we come to see that the cause of the error appears to be being over-extended and tired: 

In August 2014 I experienced one of the busiest days I have known in general practice. I worked from 7:45am, foot continuously on the accelerator, until after 6:30pm with no break for coffee or lunch or tea. I probably managed to pass urine once. For the first time in 22 years I was unable to complete the work I needed to do that day before being late for our Partnership meeting that evening. It was a 13.5 hour day and I cycled home exhausted. I slept fitfully and woke early, my mind racing with the events of the previous day and thoughts for the coming one.

The fateful visit occurred later the same day, at the end of another full-on morning with no break and no lunch, with only a few minutes to get back to the surgery to lead the meeting. The patient, who I knew well, was acutely ill and needed a prescription. In my rush . . . I missed the drug allergy on my patient printout. I can’t remember whether I checked and just missed it or whether I just didn't check. 

I rushed back to people waiting for me and the meeting went well. Then with my mind buzzing I set about catching up with all the tasks and letters and path results that had come in that morning and afternoon and the work I had been unable to complete the previous day. I wrote up the visit. The computer warned me about the drug interaction but I flicked through ignoring it along with all the other non-clinically relevant warnings that come up.

The realization was delayed: 

A week later I was reviewing the patient’s notes for some reason and to my horror realised what had happened. I printed out the visit slip – yes the allergy was there. I tried re-issuing the drug – yes the computer did warn me. The really scary thing is that despite being a conscientious GP for 22 years, despite predicting that something like this would happen (though not to me!) and despite teaching safe prescribing habits to GP registrars for 15 years, I did not realise what was happening at the time. I was just overloaded and hitting me so I'm more careful in future isn't necessarily going to help.

As I have reported: 

Terry Fairbanks (Director of the National Center for Human Factors Engineering in Healthcare) notes that most errors are skill-based errors, or errors that occur when you are in automatic mode, doing tasks that you have done over and over--indeed tasks at which you are expert. 

He explains, "When you are in skills-based mode, you don't think about the task you are about to do. Signs don't work! Education and labeling don't work when you are in skills-based mode. Most medical errors are in the things we do every day."

Accordingly, vigilance and training are not the answer to skill-based errors. Neither is punishment:

"While discipline and punishment has a role when there is reckless behavior, applying discipline to skill-based errors will drive reporting underground and will kill improvement."

Being tired and stressed can be a contributing factor, as was the case here. And David uses this story to make a case for a more rational patient loads for NHS GPs:

Much is made of learning from the airline industry in making the NHS safer. However, NHSE, DoH and the government are not credible in this matter. The current contractual arrangements mean that there is no point beyond which a GP cannot be pushed and NHSE is quite intent to keep on pushing. This is in stark contrast to flight crew safety rules which "recognize the universality of factors that lead to fatigue in most individuals and regulates these factors to ensure that flight crew members in passenger operations do not accumulate dangerous amounts of fatigue.  Fatigue threatens aviation safety because it increases the risk of pilot error."

It is absurd that GPs are trusted to decide on the patient with chest pain in front of them and on commissioning for populations but are denied the ability to decide on a safe workload in their own practices.  

He concludes with a warning:

And if no solution is forthcoming, General Practice will have crossed, by NHSE’s action, from ‘if’ serious patient harm occurs to ‘when’ but it will be the GP who is hung out to dry. I find myself asking a question I never dreamt I’d ask, ‘Is it ethical to be a GP?’ Should I continue to work within this system, knowing there is a real chance of inadvertently harming a patient, when it deliberately and incompetently denies me the means to minimise that risk? 

So how long do I continue to push my luck?


Anonymous said...

As a harmed patient, please read thru my response.

I am more interested in criminal actions against administration that push things to the brink like this. Its all about the dollar, not about patient safety.

I am interested in education and the like, and in helping. However, once I get doctors that refuse to be educated, you don't have a choice in what you want.

I have seen docs make mistakes. The ones I can forgive are ones who come up and apologize and in their general day to day action with me, tell me "I care" and "I am human". Its the ego's I can't deal with. The I am right at all costs mentality and you must be crazy. Blame the patient. You get so many of these types of doctors in the system, that's part of the push back from patients.

It is more in the trashing of human beings, by the refusal to do what you did, heart soul reaching, reaching out to the patient, that is the problem. I applaud you for your honesty. I'd suggest reading a story, right now I can't find it, but there are several showing that patients do forgive mistakes. Its the attitude that makes the difference.

Kevin W. Bridges said...

The comparison to airlines works well except that there is not more need to fly than there is pilots. With physicians, there are limited resources and the needs of patients far outweigh the supply of doctors. I feel for them, they are a tired bunch. I don't see regulations improving their plight much either. Unfortunately, the burden lies on those who choose the profession. Raising self-awareness among doctors and their own limitations, they will have to learn when to self-regulate and say no. Some days, 10 patients may be to many and the ability of one doctor can be very different from another. Some can go all night, other cannot. Health care needs will always outweigh resources, therefore we have to spend more time looking at the application of those resources. In the meantime, doctors gotta know their own limits and take care of themselves because nobody else is going to do it for them, just like the rest of us Joes.