When doctors make mistakes

BURLINGTON - Barry Lang is a doctor-turned-lawyer. He specializes in suing doctors and looks for cases with a "phone number" - damages worth seven figures. He has no shortage of work.

What problems do doctors face in today's world? How do they cope with those problems? What effects do the problems have on them and on our medical and social systems? How can the problems best be dealt with?

Using short stories, essays, plays, and poems, the Vermont Humanities Council and the Vermont Board of Medical Practice are exploring all those questions in "Doctors, Patients, and the Public Trust," a six-part discussion program open to the public.

The third program in the series, held Nov. 12, focused on the causes and effects of malpractice.

Two insightful essays written by Boston surgeon Atul Gawande, "When Doctors Make Mistakes" and "The Malpractice Mess," constitute the main reading material for the third session.

According to Gawande, "a central truth" in medicine is that "all doctors make terrible mistakes." Mistakes are "an inevitable part of medicine," as they are of everyday life.

"The important question," Gawande emphasizes, "isn't how to keep bad physicians from harming patients; it's how to keep good physicians from harming patients."

"Medical malpractice suits," Gawande concludes, "are a remarkably ineffective remedy."

But what alternatives are available? Would New Zealand's system of compensating for rare and severe medical injuries work here? Does saying "I'm sorry" deter legal action?

Readings may be accessed online at the Vermont Medical Society's website, www.vtmd.org, or by calling the Board of Medical Practice at 802-657-4220.

Future programs will be held on Jan. 21, Feb. 18, and March 189.

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