A Failure to Communicate Can Prove Deadly for Patients

The phrase, “It takes a village,” is used to describe the demands of properly raising a child. But this phrase is also true in the healthcare industry where it takes a seemingly endless number of professionals to treat just one patient.

For example, if a patient requires knee surgery, they’ve likely encountered several doctors before even considering going under the knife. They’ve probably consulted their primary care doctor, who then referred them to a rheumatologist, an orthopedic surgeon or both. If they had the means to do so, they might have sought a second opinion from another doctor.

Then, the patient with the injured knee also encountered several healthcare professionals before, during and after their surgery, including an anesthesiologist, a surgical nurse, a floor nurse, nursing aides, a physical therapist and any other number of medical professionals.

To avoid costly mistakes, this complex network of professionals must be precise and thorough in their communication. Each professional in this network must know the risks the patient faces, be mindful of the other medical conditions of the patient, know the medications they are taking and make sure that they don’t do anything that jeopardizes the patient’s health.

Each additional doctor, nurse or aide that gets involved in a single patient’s care is another opportunity for a communication breakdown and, thus, another opportunity for the patient to experience harm.

The stakes of miscommunication among healthcare professionals are huge. A study from the late 1990s estimated that miscommunication contributed to anywhere between 44,000 and 98,000 patient deaths annually in hospitals alone.

In a Medical Setting, there are Several Opportunities for a Communication Breakdown

In a field that has become increasingly complex, effective communication is proving to be a big challenge for healthcare providers. As illustrated in this U.S. News and World Report article, communication problems are common in medical facilities. Some problems arise from interpersonal dynamics between staff members, much like communication problems in any workplace setting.

Medical facilities are very hierarchical, which means that the person dictating the terms of the patient’s care (the doctor) is the one in charge, despite the fact that they likely spend less time monitoring the patient than the nurses. Nurses’ concerns are often disregarded by doctors, and this causes tension. If a workplace’s interpersonal dynamics become toxic, miscommunication occurs, and in a medical facility, the consequences can be disastrous.

The Enormous Consequences of Miscommunication

The U.S. News and World Report article also discusses the “hand-off,” a process in which a patient goes from being under the care of one professional and into the care of another. The hand-off can introduce yet another margin of error in the form of missed or misinterpreted information.

Authors of a 2011 article published by the U.S. National Library of Medicine

National Institutes of Health said that one of the interactions which proved to be most vulnerable to communication breakdown was that of two doctors caring for the same patient.

A lack of communication between two doctors regarding the same patient is particularly common when it comes to specialists or consultants and the patient’s primary care doctor. The author of the 2011 article was surprised to find that primary care doctors often don’t thoroughly communicate a patient’s needs or information with the specialist. Conversely, many specialists and consultants never bother to contact a primary care doctor to notify them of their findings.

Workplace dynamics, hierarchical structures and general shortcomings of doctor-to-doctor communications are just a small part of the many problems plaguing our healthcare industry. Sadly, patients often suffer the consequences of these problems.

If you believe that your healthcare provider has caused you significant harm and you’d like to consider your legal options, we encourage you to contact Cirignani, Heller & Harman. We offer free case evaluations, so you can learn more about your options. Give us a call today to get started.