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Managing medical mistakes: Ideology, insularity and accountability among internists-in-training


  • Mizrahi, Terry


By the end of graduate medical training, novice internists (collectively known as the housestaff) were initiated into the experience of either having done something to a patient which had a deleterious consequence or else having witnessed colleagues do the same. When these events occurred, the housestaff engaged in social-psychological processes, utilizing a variety of coping mechanisms and in-group practices to manage these mishaps. Three major mechanisms were utilized by the housestaff for defining and defending the various mishaps which frequently occurred: denial, discounting and distancing. Denial consisted of three components: the negation of the concept of error by defining the practice of medicine as an art with 'gray areas', the repression of actual mistakes by forgetting them and the redefinition of mistakes to non-mistakes. Discounting included those defenses which externalized the blame; namely mistakes which were due to circumstances beyond their control. These included: blaming the bureaucratic system outside of medicine; blaming superiors or subordinates within internal medicine; blaming the disease and blaming the patient. When they could not longer deny or discount a mistake because of its magnitude, they utilized distancing techniques. Not withstanding this shared elaborate repertoire of denial, discounting and distancing, it was found that profound doubts and even guilt remained for many housestaff. These troublesome feelings neither easily no automatically resolved themselves. Interspersed among their defenses were fundamental questions of culpability and responsibility as they vacillated between self and other blame. For many 'the case was never closed', even as they terminated formal training, a point neglected in the medical and sociological literature. Little in their 3 year graduate program allowed them to work through the attendant vulnerability and ambiguity accompanying the managing of mistakes. Hence, there were maladaptive aspects of the collectively acquired defense mechanisms. The whole system of accountability during graduate medical specialty training was found to be a variable, and at times, contradictory process. The housestaff ultimately sees itself as the sole arbiter of mistakes and their adjudication. Housestaffers come to feel that nobody can judge them or their decisions, least of all their patients. As they progress through training even internal accountability cohorts--the Department of Medicine, teaching faculty and peers--are discounted to varying degrees. They have developed a strong ideology justifying their jealously guarded autonomy. In the graduate medical socialization process, they have learned to believe that because they perceive themselves as their own worst judges, they should be their only judges. Because of the insularity and isolation of the housestaff subculture in a position of high prestige, with the power to make life and death decisions, they see themselves as singularly responsible for their actions and disparage any attempt by others to insert themselves into the process of accountability.

Suggested Citation

  • Mizrahi, Terry, 1984. "Managing medical mistakes: Ideology, insularity and accountability among internists-in-training," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 19(2), pages 135-146, January.
  • Handle: RePEc:eee:socmed:v:19:y:1984:i:2:p:135-146

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Temin, Peter, 1983. "Costs and benefits in switching drugs from Rx to OTC," Journal of Health Economics, Elsevier, vol. 2(3), pages 187-205, December.
    2. Foster, S. D., 1990. "Improving the supply and use of essential drugs in sub-Saharan Africa," Policy Research Working Paper Series 456, The World Bank.
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    Cited by:

    1. Collins, Molly E. & Block, Susan D. & Arnold, Robert M. & Christakis, Nicholas A., 2009. "On the prospects for a blame-free medical culture," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 69(9), pages 1287-1290, November.
    2. Waring, Justin J., 2009. "Constructing and re-constructing narratives of patient safety," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 69(12), pages 1722-1731, December.
    3. Litorp, Helena & Mgaya, Andrew & Mbekenga, Columba K. & Kidanto, Hussein L. & Johnsdotter, Sara & Essén, Birgitta, 2015. "Fear, blame and transparency: Obstetric caregivers' rationales for high caesarean section rates in a low-resource setting," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 143(C), pages 232-240.
    4. Lin, Katherine Y. & Anspach, Renee R. & Crawford, Brett & Parnami, Sonali & Fuhrel-Forbis, Andrea & De Vries, Raymond G., 2014. "What must I do to succeed?: Narratives from the US premedical experience," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 119(C), pages 98-105.
    5. Kerr, Anne, 2009. "A problem shared...? Teamwork, autonomy and error in assisted conception," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 69(12), pages 1741-1749, December.

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