Accepting the Risks in Medical Education and Medical Practice

by Douglas Dirschl, MD

In a March 17, 2009 article in the New York Times, Dr. Richard Friedman, a professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College, discusses the nearly universal preference patients have for a seasoned physicians over residents or physicians just out of training.  The strong perception is that physicians learn from experience, implying that the “practice” of medicine is just that – a process of continual learning and improvement.

How does one learn in medicine? Clearly, one large component has been intensive exposure to medical practice within the supervision of residency training programs.  Dr. Friedman points out to us, however, that there may be an inherent conflict at the heart of medical training: “what may be best for making a skilled, independent-thinking doctor may not always be best for patient comfort or safety”. We want our young physicians to be competent, knowledgeable, and confident, yet we also have a responsibility (and increasing scrutiny from regulatory and legal agencies) in protecting patients from the medical errors that could result from a physician’s inexperience.

All residents, at some point, leave the relative security of training and go out on their own. Some experts are now questioning whether medical training programs are striking the right balance between education and training and patient safety to produce physicians who can function optimally. Dr. Friedman argues that restrictions imposed by resident duty hour limitations, decreasing amounts of resident autonomy due to concerns of patient safety, and regulatory groups mandating that some medical complications should never occur, have combined to create a generation of young physicians who lack confidence in their ability to make judgments about patient care. In the pursuit of patient safety, we now deliberately prevent residents from acting independently on their own judgment in situations where a patient poses a theoretical risk.

It is said that 90% of orthopaedic residents currently go on to do fellowship training after residency. Is this because orthopaedics has become so highly complex that 5 years is not sufficient time to master it all, is it that residents completing programs today have less self confidence in their own abilities than the generation of physicians before them, or is it that society expectations have increased and it now expects ‘perfection’ of every physician, no matter how experienced. The answer is probably “yes, yes, and yes”.

To date, there are no reliable national data that regulatory changes in resident work hours, patient safety initiatives, or ‘never events’ (for example, CMS has determined that no patient should have a DVT after an orthopaedic procedure, and won’t pay for it if a patient does), have had a significant impact on preventable medical error or patient mortality rates. There is a cost to the development of professional identity of young doctors, arguing that it is hard to feel confident and independent unless you are given ample opportunity to stand on your own — and risk making a mistake.

There is no doubt that all physicians in training – and those in practice as well – pose an inherent risk to patients.  We should do everything we can to minimize this risk but recognize that doing so will probably impair physicians’ self-confidence.  We may end up with a generation of physicians who, by virtue of the environment in which they have trained, are more hesitant, more uncertain, and less self-confident that the American public might like.

Click here to read the full text of Dr. Friedman’s article.

Dr. Douglas R. Dirschl is Frank C. Wilson Distinguished Professor and Chair of Orthopaedics at UNC School of Medicine. He also serves on the Own the BoneSteering Committee and chairs the Critical Issues Committee for the American Orthopaedic Association.