Why it is critical we learn from past healthcare mistakes

Failure, after all, is part of the process of improvement

Reading Time: 4 minutes

By Joshua Tepper
St. Michael’s Hospital
and Danielle Martin
Women’s College Hospital

Forty is the new 30. Orange is the new black. And failure is the new success.

It seems that, these days, no success story is complete without a failure (or two) along the way: the bankruptcy that gave birth to a successful company; the entrepreneur who lost it all just before hitting the Fortune 500. Entire issues of the Harvard Business Review and the New York Times Magazine have been devoted to failure. In the business world leaders are often told: “Fail fast, fail early, fail often.”

In many sectors it is understood that to innovate, we must accept – even celebrate – failure.

Joshua Tepper
Joshua Tepper

But not in healthcare. At nearly 12 per cent of our GDP, healthcare is a huge part of the Canadian economy, and one in which new ways of doing business are needed. Yet it is an industry that has not accepted that part of improvement must be a willingness to fail.

When we fail in healthcare we often fail twice: once in the event itself and again when we are unable to recognize, name and learn from that failure.

Where lives are on the line, of course, failing early and often understandably sound unpalatable. But we do fail in healthcare. And while we don’t want to encourage it, we do need to shift away from a culture that can’t acknowledge it towards one where failure is understood to be part of the process of improvement.

Failures in healthcare occur at two levels: the level of the individual patient and the system level. It is often easy to recognize failures at the patient level, such as when medications get mixed up, unnecessary infections occur or poor communication leads to harm. We are getting better at communicating failure at the provider-patient level. Organizations are adopting policies and approaches that facilitate sharing – moving away from “blame-and-shame” cultures in order to improve.

However, learning within a single organization is not enough when there are thousands of organizations that make up our health system. Right now, we have limited means to facilitate learning from each other’s’ failures across organizations.

Danielle Martin

This is particularly worrisome in an industry where similar environments and sets of interactions repeat themselves. An ambiguously labelled vial that leads to medication error in one long-term care home will be identical to vials in hundreds of other homes. A cleaning process susceptible to human error used in one operating room will be used in dozens of other operating rooms the same day.

System level failures in healthcare happen but are harder to see.

In a public healthcare system, too often system failures end up as fodder for Question Period battles rather than impetus for learning. When investments have been made in new models of health service funding and delivery that don’t work out, it can be difficult to proclaim failure as a means to move toward success. But in the absence of a willingness to be open about policy ideas that didn’t pan out, we risk continuing to invest in sub-par models of care delivery and we hinder our ability to achieve excellence as a system.

Patients and the public are part of the answer.

We all put tremendous faith in the healthcare system at times of incredible vulnerability. Patients and families want to trust in our system, and need to believe that when the stakes are so high it will work. But providers and organizations also need to trust patients and the public that they will not only understand our failings but help us do better.

Solutions are not easy. Some can be learned from other industries, some will be healthcare specific. We need structures and processes so learning can occur across the system. We need the health education system to prepare providers for a career learning from, and not burying, failure. Failures must become teachable moments, not professional risks.

In an industry as large and complex as healthcare, where innovation is a must, we are bound to make errors. But it’s the failure to learn from our mistakes so that we can do better, that we should really be worrying about.

Joshua Tepper is a family physician at St. Michael’s Hospital and Associate Professor at the University of Toronto. Danielle Martin is a family physician and Vice President at Women’s College Hospital.

Joshua and Danielle are Troy Media Thought Leaders. Why aren’t you?

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The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

Joshua Tepper

Dr. Tepper is a family physician and has always remained in active practice serving marginalized populations and taking on clinical leadership roles. Previously, he served as the Medical Director for ICHA, President of the Inner City Family Health Team and as Vice-President of the Society of Rural Physicians. Currently, Dr. Tepper practices in the St. Michael’s Hospital Family Health Team and in the Emergency Department at North York General Hospital.

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