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The Role of Health Communication in Medical Errors

Mariah LaRue

Just this week a study was released suggesting that one third of deaths in the United States are due to medical errors. While these findings are shocking and disconcerting, the good news is that as health communicators we can help address the problem by improving communication around medicine.

The first way heath communicators can impact medical errors is by preventing them. There are many examples of how this can be done. One way is through information coordination. Care is often fragmented. Even when it takes place in a single location, patients often have multiple doctors and nurses working with them. As a result, it can be difficult to ensure appropriate and accurate information is shared between all providers. As scholars of communication, we can focus on how to engineer interactions and processes to ensure information is shared in effectively. For example, health communicators may look at how information is shared at shift changes. If information is written down, we may look at the forms used to organize the information to see if they are user friendly. For instance, EHRs may be confusing, or forms may be difficult to read. Health communicators may also look at interpersonal interactions to see how clinicians interact with each other, and figure out if there are ways interpersonal interactions could be re-structured to better support information exchange. An example of this may be creating a team culture where all members are encouraged to speak. Medicine has certain power structures, and people in certain positions may be reluctant to speak up or question a superior. Introducing a tool like a checklist and creating a collaborative atmosphere where all are encouraged to participate may improve communication and reduce errors. 

Another way communication can impact medical errors is simply by reporting them. For so long medical errors have been kept secret from patients’ families as hospitals feared they would be sued. By not reporting medical errors, there are conflicting views on the cause of death in the United States. While it is probably scary for the hospitals to admit their wrongs on a death certificate, keeping the problems secret might make it more difficult for hospitals and communication specialists to develop best practices and solutions for preventing errors. Secrecy also impacts patients’ families. Since hospitals were afraid of being sued for medical errors, it was unlikely they would be disclosed to the families. This leaves families feeling confused, angry, or lacking closure because they may not have known what truly happened to their loved one. 

Once again, heath communicators can help solve these issues. During first quarter, Bruce Lambert, taught us about how hospitals can disclose medical errors to patients and families. He and others have developed models of communication for disclosing errors and supporting families after a medical error occurs. Though admitting fault might seem like a risky business model for the hospital, it actually has the opposite effect. Many impacted by medical errors decline suit, appreciate the honesty and support the hospital moving forward.

Medical errors are clearly an issue in the United States. As scholars of health communication we can begin to bridge communication gaps to prevent errors and support families after an error occurs. For more information on the study, check out the article about medical errors here.  


Photo by Alex Proimos under free attribution license. The photographer does not endorse this written work.