Talking to Your Doctor: When Your Doctor Makes an Error

Paul wasn’t feeling well, experiencing some symptoms that he hadn’t previously experienced, so he made an appointment with his physician.


His doctor seemed to listen as Paul described his symptoms. But he didn’t examine Paul, and he didn’t seem to have any questions of his own.  “I don’t this is anything to worry about,” his doctor told him.  “The symptoms should go away in a couple of days.”


Well, two days later, the symptoms had not gone away, in fact they were worse. Paul woke up in the middle of the night feeling so badly that his wife insisted they go the emergency room.  There, the doctors decided he should be admitted for observation.  Paul was placed on medication, and stayed in the hospital an additional night before he was released.


Paul later told his wife how disappointed he was with his physician. He felt that his doctor had not taken him seriously and, as a result, placed his health at risk.  On the other hand, he had a longstanding relationship with his doctor, and viewed his doctor as a competent professional.


“I can’t just let this go by,” Paul said to his wife. “What should I do?”


If you were Paul, what would you do? Keep quiet about it?  Give your doctor a good scolding?  Fire him/her?  There is a way to handle a situation like this in a way that allows you to express your feelings and even, potentially, strengthens your relationship with your doctor.  Here’s how:


Breathe.  It’s only human to have strong emotions when someone you depend on has let you down.  But this is not the time to attempt to express yourself to your doctor.  Talk things out with a friend or family member.  Vent if you need to.


Focus on the big picture.  Is this incident a bump in what has been a good relationship, as Paul had with his doctor?  And is it a relationship you want to maintain?  It’s important to be clear with yourself about what you want in the future.  Having this goal in mind will help to frame your discussion with your doctor.


Set up a time to talk.  This is a conversation that is best conducted in person, so that you can more fully express yourself and so that you can observe your physician’s reactions as well.  Ideally, your physician should be willing to take a moment out of his/her day to meet with you.  If it is inconvenient for you to get to your doctor’s office, and if your doctor returns calls, then you can have this conversation over the phone.  But don’t wait until the next appointment.


Start the conversation by stating your purpose.  Let your doctor know why you are there.  If you didn’t do this when you set up the time to meet, then begin the conversation this way.  “I need to talk to you about the advice you gave me the last time I came in, and what happened to me after that.”


State the facts.  Briefly review what you experienced, beginning with what happened during your appointment.  “I came in last ___________ and described symptoms that included _______________.  You told me that the symptoms would go away in a couple of days.  They didn’t go away.  On _____________ night, I went to the emergency room.  I was diagnosed with ______________ and given ___________. “   If you went to another doctor, or a specialist, for treatment, make sure your doctor is aware of those facts as well.  Also, tell your doctor how you felt emotionally: “I was really ______ (disappointed/scared/ angry).”


Give your doctor a chance to react.  You will learn a lot by how your doctor reacts.  Your doctor may apologize for his/her oversight.  That would be ideal.  Or he/she might become defensive and deny having made an error, or making it your problem for not describing your symptoms accurately.


Talk about how to move forward.  If you are comfortable with how your doctor handles this situation, then you might talk about how the two of you can better communicate in the future.  This would be a time to tell your doctor how he/she could communicate better, and ask what you can do as well.  “We’ve had a good relationship.  What can we do to make it better?”


And if you’re not on the same page… then you are left with another decision: whether you want to stay with your doctor or not.  You may want to take some time to think about this before you make your decision.


Keep in mind: If your doctor has made repeated errors, or if this error resulted in serious or ongoing damage, or financial loss, then you may want to consider other options.


You and your doctor. Keep the communication open and honest. That’s teamwork!