To Err is Medicine: Margaret Duncan

I am a person who makes mistakes.

I am a student who makes mistakes.

One day, I will probably be a doctor who makes mistakes.

The first two statements are acceptable things, not life-altering, except perhaps mine. There comes a point in my career where suddenly, though, this intrinsic part of me that results in me spilling barbecue sauce on myself or tripping on the same sidewalk crack everyday or misremembering a famous person’s name could be the difference between life and death.

There is a clear divide where suddenly, moments of forgetfulness could become moments that change everything.

This is terrifying, all the more so because I know how hard I’ve tried to not spill things or not trip in important situations, and I still end up with a blotch on a white shirt or a slightly grazed knee on concrete. This is okay when my human-ness only causes embarrassment or moments of humility. This propensity for accidents is shattering once I graduate from studying cases and flashcards to caring for real, living, breathing, unpredictable, and detailed humans on the wards.

This is the system of pressure healthcare workers operate under. This is a culture of perfection or dire consequences. This week at Telluride is making me wonder if this assumed system is the only way it can be. The answer seems to be no, but what has to happen for us to create a system without the same high level of expectations?

It has to start here:

I am a person, and I make mistakes.

I am a student, and I make mistakes.

I am a doctor, and I make mistakes.

To write that out, at all, feels anathema, a betrayal to my chosen profession. But secrets and barriers and facades and belief in the illusion of perfection hurt patients. A blustery, on-high perspective and expectation of ourselves doom us to failure. The best thing we can do for patients, is to admit that we err.

We are human, as much as we try not to be, and we don’t know it all.