Enter the maze

Screaming Headline Kills!!!

Screaming Headline - OMG!!! Shocking news: Copyright www.iStockphoto.com

Most people in hospital get great treatment but if something does go wrong the victims often want something good to come of it. They want to understand why it happened and be sure it won't happen to anyone else. Medical mistakes can make a big news story though with screaming headlines vilifying those 'responsible'. It may sell papers but it could also make things worse.

If press and politicians are pressurising hospitals to show they have done something, they may just sack the person who made the mistake. They may then not improve things meaning the same thing could happen again if it was an accident waiting to happen. Worse if we're too quick to blame and punish someone, other people will be reluctant to report their mistakes, and without that sharing we can't learn from them. One of the reasons flying is so safe is that pilots always report 'near misses' knowing they will be praised for doing so, rather than getting into trouble. It's far better to learn from mistakes where nothing really bad happens than wait for a tragedy.

Share mistakes to learn from them

Chrystie Myketiak from Queen Mary is exploring whether the way a medical technology story is reported makes a difference to how we think about it, and ultimately what happens. She analysed news stories about three similar incidents in the UK, America and Canada. She wanted to see what the papers said, but also how they said it. The press often sensationalise stories but Chrystie found that this didn't always happen. Some news stories did imply that the person who'd made the mistake was the problem (it's rarely that simple!) but others were more careful to highlight that they were busy people working under stressful conditions and that the mistakes only happened because there were other problems. Regulations in Canada mean the media can't report on specific details of a story while it is being investigated. Chrystie found that, in the incidents she looked at, that led to much more reasoned reporting. In that kind of environment hospitals are more likely to improve rather than just blame staff. How the hospital handled a case also affected what was written - being open and honest about a problem is better than ignoring requests for comment and pretending there isn't a problem.

As we've seen everyone makes mistakes (if you don't believe that, the next time you're at a magic show, make sure none of the tricks fool you!).

Often mistakes happen because the system wasn't able to prevent them.

Rather than blame, retrain or sack someone its far better to improve the system. That way something good will come of tragedies.