01 December 2006

School of Hard Knocks

I've made my fair share of mistakes as a doctor. Administrating medications by a wrong route. Missing a diagnosis. Choosing the wrong treatment. Complications from surgery. Some of them have been potentially fatal, and how many have contributed to expediting a patient's departure from this world - who knows? Medicine is not a perfect science.

I recall many such instances when my judgement was not always the best nor my observation the keenest. But a surgeon said to me once, 'Complications are taught to you because they happen. You learn them so you can avoid them best you can, but know how to deal with them when they do happen. A surgeon who says he has not had complications is either lying or hasn't done enough!' Well said. I wouldn't use that as a selling point to my patients, but nonetheless, a person who admits mistakes clears his path to progress.

The seniors I respect the most are the ones who will teach from their experiences. Especially those who will recall the disasters they encountered or caused and warn against repeating their mistakes. Seniors are seniors, in part at least, because they have made more mistakes. Mistakes qualify them to guide those following in their steps. Similarly when we make mistakes, we beat ourselves and take time putting humpty-dumpty back together again, but we are in the process of becoming experts ourselves.

Nobody should make mistakes intentionally or keep making the same mistake over and again. Yet, looking back, the things I have learnt best and remember the longest, were learnt through humiliating errors. All the more effective if a supervisor skinned and whipped me for it. Sound a little masochistic? Well, yeah. Nonetheless, it's true. So I also tell my students - be brave, speak up, and make your mistakes now. You will learn better for having been corrected than by saying the safe and right thing all the time.

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