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Preventing Medical Malpractice Requires Better Teamwork by Providers

Atul Gawande is a surgeon, a medical school professor and an accomplished author. He is also one of the health care system's most articulate critics - calling, for example, for greater use of checklists to prevent surgical errors.

In his recent commencement address at Harvard Medical, Gawande again aimed his thoughtful, reform-minded criticism at the way medical care is delivered in America.

Some of the dire statistics about medical mistakes that Gawande cites can be listed in bullet point form:

  • 2 million patients every year who pick up infections in hospitals because workers didn't follow proper anti-septic sanitation procedures.
  • 40 percent of heart disease patients, and 60 percent of those suffering from asthma, receive care that is either insufficient or inappropriate.
  • Half of all "major surgical complications" could be avoided if existing medical knowledge were properly used.

Gawande points out that many of these problems result from the sheer growth in the amount of medical knowledge available. Medicine, for better and often for worse, has entered the information age - and all the different specialists within it do not do a good enough job of talking with one another or with patients themselves.

In short, doctors, nurses and other medical staff need to learn to work together better. As Gawande puts it, they have to stop being cowboys, trying to do everything on their own. Instead, they need to recognize their role as part of the medical equivalent of a car-racing pit crew, working together as a team to improve care for the patient.

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