11/05/2012 05:21 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Hidden Costs of Stifling Medical Mistakes

Doctors have neither all the answers nor a magic pill to cure our human frailties. We are outraged when a physician makes a mistake: Worst-case scenario, the doctor amputates the wrong leg -- or incorrectly diagnoses an ailment. But it happens more than you might think.

Yet, as Dr. Brian Goldman shared in a TED talk, medical errors are inevitable. Nevertheless, doctors don't talk about this. An unspoken standard in the medical community prevents physicians from doing so. Shame and isolation closely follow failure in the medical field. The focus isn't on correcting it, but on damage control -- sweep it under the rug, don't discuss it.

The hidden cost to pretending mistakes never happened means that other physicians will continue to make the same mistakes, which translates into increased medical costs and more malpractice lawsuits.

Goldman wants the medical community to be more transparent, and his call for change, while seeming to be a cry in the medical wilderness, is actually a sentiment that echoes with our current social mood. Working together to learn from mistakes and improve health care reflects the current values of society. My co-author Roy H. Williams and I address such social shifts in our new book, Pendulum: How Past Generations Shape Our Present and Predict Our Future.

We've found that every 40 years or so, society's values and culture shift significantly -- society swings back and forth on an invisible pendulum, from an individualistic "me" cycle, such as what we had in the 1960s and 1970s, to a more civic-minded "we" cycle, like we experienced after World War II.

Currently we are in a "civic" or "we" cycle, which began in 2003. During this cycle, people value small actions that help the common good over a mentality that stresses "each man for himself." Aligned with this is a call for physicians to step down from the pedestal of individual heroics and the false pretense of infallibility.

Physicians don't have all the answers. By pooling knowledge -- especially wisdom gained from acknowledging mistakes -- we stand to increase that knowledge base and find answers. Dr. Goldman is working to overcome the stigma of talking about errors. He notes that in his work with other physicians, while doctors are terrified of breaking the wall of silence, they're still eager to share their own stories, "They want to be able to say, 'Look, don't make the same mistake I did,'" Dr. Goldman says.

Physicians are human and make mistakes like everyone else. Our weakness lies in denying human fallibility. Our strength lies in acknowledging our imperfections and working together to transform weaknesses into strengths.

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