When Doctors Are Wrong

As medical students and resident physicians gain experience they also gain
knowledge and confidence. Consequently, young trainees eventually reach a
level of comfort in speaking with families and patients about prognosis and
disease course. This is part of the purpose of training, as these
conversations happen so often that they are an integral part of practicing
medicine. But it isn’t certain that with experience and confidence also comes
accuracy.

***

Soon after finishing sign-out on a night shift I received a page. The
nurses told me that a patient’s daughter had arrived and wanted to speak
with me about her father. The patient was an elderly but relatively healthy
gentleman who had been admitted with abdominal pain. Multiple imaging
studies had shown little to account for his discomfort. But the pain was so
intense that he could not eat anything. Even going to the bathroom was
difficult — he held in his stool to avoid the agonizing act of defecating.
As a result, he became constipated, which then exacerbated the pain. Thus,
the medical team administered anti-inflammatory treatments, stool softeners, and IV
fluids as they searched for the etiology of this troublesome symptom.

The patient’s daughter asked me about the latest imaging studies and labs
as she sat holding her father’s hand. Buried to his chin under the covers,
the patient participated in the discussion, asking when he would be able to
eat and go to the bathroom easily again. I explained that all the tests had
been negative so far and we were unsure of what was going on. I then left the
room, and the daughter caught up to me in the hallway. She seemed worried,
speaking hurriedly and pleadingly: “How long do you think my father has
left to live? How much time do I have left with him? Should I start making
funeral arrangements?”

The questions took me aback. I had seen plenty of patients in the
intensive care unit
who were on the verge of death and they looked so different from her father
— a profound pallor, somnolence, lethargy, disinterest in conversation
and food. But this patient wanted to eat again, he wanted to see his
family, he wanted to watch basketball on TV, and he was interactive and
conversational. His cheeks certainly did not exhibit the deathly pale hue
of those crossing over to the other side. I assured the daughter of this:
“I don’t think you have to worry about that. The most important thing right
now is that we figure out what is going on. I can’t tell you how long he’s
going to live but I would be shocked if he had only days or weeks left.”

This interaction repeated itself for the next three nights, always with the
same diagnostic uncertainty. On further imaging there was evidence of some
abnormal fluid in the abdominal cavity. Interventional radiologists
extracted the fluid to test it for any cancerous or infectious cells, but it
would take perhaps a week or more for definitive results to come back. In
the meantime, the patient’s pain improved and he moved his bowels without
issue. Even though we didn’t yet have a diagnosis he seemed to be doing
incrementally better each day.

On the fourth night I again saw the daughter and she asked: “You don’t
think I should be planning the funeral for my father, do you? He’s not
going to pass in the next few days?” I understood why she was asking the
question — any child ought to be concerned for the well-being of a parent.
But I was also surprised because her father was on the mend. I told her
that if he continued to improve he would leave the hospital, and his primary
care doctor would follow up the lab results and see him in clinic.

At around 2 a.m. that same night, a voice over the hospital loudspeaker
echoed throughout the halls as I jumped out of my chair: “Code blue, 7th floor, code blue, 7th floor.” There was a
patient in cardiac arrest. I ran out of the workroom and met up with
another resident. Which patient was dying? On my way to the code I ran
through the patients on the coverage list that evening; I did not expect
anyone to pass away. As the other resident and I ran down the hall I saw
the code cart containing all the medical resuscitation equipment necessary
to treat cardiac arrest outside of the room I had visited every night for
the past four nights. My heart leapt out of my chest; I pleaded with some
higher power that it not be that patient. But it was.

The resident, nurses, and I immediately began CPR. The anesthesiologists
burst into the room and stuck a tube down the patient’s throat and into his
trachea to protect his airway as the respiratory therapist attached the
tube to a ventilator to help the patient breathe on his own. After multiple
rounds of CPR, his pulse returned. We wheeled the patient — attached to
tubes, and poles filled with intravenous fluids — to the ICU for closer
monitoring. He didn’t respond to our questions or poking and prodding, but
he was alive.

Alas, as soon as we got to the ICU, his heart once again
stopped beating and his IV line ceased working — his veins (which can
happen as we age) were friable and brittle, and the small vein carrying the
volume and force of the IV infusions burst. Without an IV we could not give
medications. We turned, then, to an

intraosseous (IO) line
. This entails drilling a hole into the bone and infusing medications
through that hole. It is a proven method of administering medications when
physicians and nurses cannot obtain IV access. I opened the IO kit and
attached the drill to the IO needle, placing it on the shinbone and drilling. It
slid into the bone, I detached the drill, and hooked up the
IV tubing to the IO line jutting out of the patient’s bone. At this point,
the code had been going on for nearly 15 minutes and the patient’s family
had arrived. They watched as we furiously attempted to revive their loved
one. At some point a family member shouted “Stop, please, enough!” Time of
death: 2:45 a.m.

I sheepishly held my head down, avoiding eye contact with the family as
they sobbed. The medical team and nurses quietly left the room, leaving the
patient in peace. As I passed by the daughter, I could only say “I’m so
sorry” — little else would have sufficed. Not only did we not save him, but
night in and night out I had given the daughter a false impression that he
wouldn’t die. Perhaps, I wondered, I had been disingenuous in some way.
Either way, I was wrong.

 ***

Alas, physicians are wrong relatively often, and there is ample
evidence for this. In a systematic review in the

British Medical Journal in 2012
, researchers found that each year up to 40,500 adult patients in American ICUs die with a misdiagnosis. The Journal of the American Medical Association published an analysis in 2009, concluding, among other things, that “while the exact prevalence of
diagnostic error remains unknown, data from autopsy series spanning several
decades conservatively and consistently reveal error rates of 10% to 15%.”
The American Journal of Medicine published a

separate analytic review article in 2008
, concluding that diagnostic error occurs up to 15% of the time in most areas
of medicine. The authors further theorized that overconfidence often
accounts for at least some of the errors. These reports have reached a wide
audience in the laymen’s press as well. In 2015, the Washington Post published an article indicating that diagnostic errors affect 12 million adults each year. The
impacts of errors, as we see in the story above, don’t just involve the patient
but the patient’s families, too.

Though these statistics are shocking, it is almost impossible, from the
patient perspective, to look at them and subsequently be skeptical of everything a doctor says. After all, we are not only practically but also emotionally dependent on them: We want reassurance from our
physicians and we want definitive answers. As a patient, it is frustrating
to hear “It may or may not be cancer and we can’t be sure” or “I don’t know
how much longer she has left.” Indeed, when the path ahead of us is no
longer clear, we turn to physicians for answers because of their
experience. We want them to be the kinds of people none of us can
be — always right, always knowledgeable, always calm and composed. But they
are fallible, despite the impossibly difficult and long road they’ve
traversed.

And what can we as physicians take away from this? Doctors want to be
the kinds of people their patients expect them to be. But the statistics
of medical errors are the reminders of how impossible that is; how many years of studying and
experience are necessary even in order to be competent; how difficult,
despite the many exams we take and pass, it is to apply knowledge
appropriately. Not only are we fallible, but the science we rely on is not
always helpful either. Indeed, the best studies are useful merely for inferring what will
probably happen — they do not tell us definitively what will happen to the
patient in front of us. Moreover,

scientific evidence does not exist
for every treatment in every situation or every diagnosis in every
situation. Once again in medicine,

our ideal does not match with the real
, and our preconceived notions are sometimes shattered in moments of frustration
and uncertainty. Perfection is unattainable, but we must
constantly seek it out, always aware of how out-of-reach it lies.

When patients and their families now ask me questions about prognosis or
treatment I always preface what I say with: “Nothing is 100% in medicine.”
Though I will be wrong again in my career and will, hopefully, learn from
my mistakes, I never want to give a false impression. We often tend to ignore uncertainty or wish it away, but we must always remind
ourselves, whether as patients or doctors, that no doctor and no science is perfect.

The Purpose of Medicine

American medicine is not well. Though it remains the most widely respected of professions, though it has never been more competent technically, it is in
trouble, both from without and from within.
—Dr. Leon R. Kass

As a newly minted medical school graduate, I am suddenly faced with much more responsibility. Now I must write prescriptions for patients, write notes
on patients, and know what to do during an emergency. It is all very daunting. While anxious and excited about these new responsibilities, I am also
confused about what I’m doing it all for.

I don’t mean that I’m confused about why I chose medicine. True, medical school was incredibly difficult, but there will be many rewards down the road. I
mean to ask: What is the purpose of medicine? It is queer that one should spend four years learning medicine and not know one’s purpose. But no one ever
discussed this question in medical school. Now, after graduation, the question’s importance is suddenly apparent. My future actions depend on the answer to
it.

Some answers are implied during our schooling. The purpose of medicine that seems obvious is to cure the patient of disease. After all, this is
why patients come to the doctor. But sometimes, we also attempt to make people happy. I’ve seen patients receive IV fluids because it will
“make them feel like they’re getting treatment.” I’ve seen children receive antibiotics even when they didn’t need them, simply because the parents wanted
something done for their children. I’ve also seen a patient receive a “therapeutic” EKG — his chest hurt and despite the fact that there was no way he was
having a heart attack, he received an EKG to “calm him down.” The goals of medicine, according to my own limited experience then, are at least twofold: the
elimination of disease and, more broadly, patient satisfaction even when it has nothing to do with disease.

Dr. Leon Kass, a teacher and bioethicist trained as a physician (and a New Atlantis contributor), wrote about the purpose of medicine in the 1975 essay “Regarding the End of Medicine and the Pursuit of Health”
in The Public Interest (available here as a PDF). Though written forty years ago this summer, the essay is as relevant and necessary as ever. I’ll highlight some of Kass’s major points to help us think through my
question about medicine’s purpose.

The fact that the purpose of the medical profession is not often considered is, Kass points out, deeply troubling. Indeed, without an
answer to the question, Kass writes, “medicine is at risk of becoming merely a set of powerful means, and the doctor at risk of becoming merely a
technician and engineer of the body, a scalpel for hire, selling his services upon demand.” This would spell the end of medicine, Kass believes — “there
will be an end to medicine unless there remains an end for medicine.”

Kass proceeds to tackle the issue by critiquing some of the goals of medicine that people sometimes assume. Happiness, he argues, should not be the
purpose of medicine. Kass offers some examples of physicians attempting to make patients happy: a surgeon might remove a woman’s breast so she can improve her
golf swing, or a family physician might administer amphetamine injections to people who want to
feel good. These interventions are aimed solely at gratification and thus are not even concerned with pathology.

Even the prolongation of life or the prevention of death per se should not be the goal of medicine, Kass argues. This, perhaps, is difficult for us to understand. Indeed,
doctors daily witness death and terminal illness. If we know CPR,
do we withhold it because it’s not our job to prevent death or prolong life? Not at all, but if we believe that the goal of medicine is the
prevention of death, then the logical endpoint of this must be “bodily immortality.” Kass observes that “to be alive and to be healthy
are not the same, though the first is both a condition of the second, and, up to a point, a consequence.”

Anyone’s life can be prolonged now. Machines
breathe for patients. Machines oxygenate patients’ blood. Machines pump blood into the circulatory system. All this occurs regularly in the intensive care unit. But if physicians put patients on these machines indefinitely
solely to keep blood flowing through arteries regardless of the patient’s condition, the mere preservation of life, and by extension the job of medicine,
is meaningless.

The goal of medicine, according to Kass, is the preservation of health. The word “health” in English means “wholeness.” It is derived from the
Old English hal, which is also the origin of “whole.” For Kass “wholeness” involves a “fully formed mature organism … composed of parts. It is a structure and not a
heap.” Additionally, wholeness includes the “working-well of the work done” by a person’s body. Thus, health consists of a proper balance of parts that
make up the whole and the workings of the whole human being. In order to demonstrate his point, Kass takes the example of a squirrel. A healthy squirrel is
not just a squirrel with a normal digestive tract, it is a squirrel who acts and looks like a squirrel. It leaps from tree to tree, runs, gathers, and
buries. All of these characteristics tell us that this is a fully-functioning, whole squirrel—a healthy squirrel. Similarly, a healthy human being acts
and looks like a human being. While this concept may seem vague, Kass’s point is well-taken; a healthy human is “recognizable if not definable.”

A good example of preserving health is the well-child visit in a pediatrician’s office, where physicians check for normal growth and development. This
demonstrates that “health is a good in its own right, not merely a privation of one or all evils.” In other words, pediatricians don’t just see children
who are sick (though they do that, too); they also see children who are healthy. And in doing so they help make sure that these children remain healthy. Family medicine physicians do something similar with adults. They see their patients on a regular basis
to ensure that patients are exercising, eating right, and have no abnormal blood counts or cholesterol numbers, and that they are otherwise doing well.

Check-ups like these are as important as giving a patient antibiotics for pneumonia. Medicine involves figuring out how to maintain the excellent functioning of a human
being. It necessarily includes what today we call preventive medicine: vaccines, cessation of smoking, a healthy diet, an active lifestyle. This view of medicine necessarily involves the patient as a partner to the physician: both work together to help maintain the health of the patient.

Many of the things we expect from medicine today do not fall under Kass’s definition of health. The injection of Botox to make one look younger, for example, does not
involve health in any way whatsoever. Having wrinkles in one’s face does not affect the excellent functioning of a person. Endocrinologists, plastic
surgeons, psychiatrists, and many other specialists and generalists all deal with patients who request the kinds of procedures that go beyond health. Whether these procedures ought
to be available is a completely separate question from whether these services fall under the purview of the physician. If physicians perform them for
patients, then physicians, I think, become service providers to the highest bidder. They become technicians at the whim of patients. (Kass addressed some of these same themes about the difference between therapy and enhancement in his 2003 New Atlantis essay “Ageless Bodies, Happy Souls.”)

To be sure, Kass’s 1975 essay does not go into the kind of detailed, philosophical argument that we might hope for. Kass himself admits this when he writes,
“large questions still remain” and “I am not seeking a precise definition of health.” But he gives us a basic and firm outline of the purpose of medicine
and we would be remiss if we didn’t study this purpose carefully. Without a purpose,
medicine lacks moral certainty or a soul. None of us, within medicine or without, can afford that.