Acad Med 2009 Dec;84(12):1648-50
Department of Medicine/Division of Infectious Diseases, University of Florida College of Medicine, Gainesville, Florida 32610, USA.
Over 15 years have passed since Mary's near death (Annals of Internal Medicine. 1993;118:146-148). Disappointment in the care by fellow academic physicians persists; however, a reanalysis of her case through the lens of complex systems design and performance yields a more accurate and actionable perspective. Mary's suffering was not due to human failure alone. Human failure was provoked and exacerbated by broken processes including ambiguous assignments of responsibility; inadequate transfers of information and authority; unreliable or unavailable protocols for providing safe, effective treatment; and a failure to integrate the deep but narrow perspectives of individual specialists into a complete picture of Mary's condition. Her case exemplifies, in personal terms, many of the system challenges academic medical centers face: Faculty have other missions that can conflict with patient care; disease complexity is high, requiring input from multiple subspecialists; clinical departments serve as roadblocks to communication; and novice physicians, requiring close supervision, have primary responsibility for the day-to-day care of acutely ill patients. The academic physicians who first cared for Mary unwittingly accepted flawed systems, and they failed to work around them. At great monetary and emotional expense, last-minute heroics saved Mary. In a dysfunctional system, even the most conscientious physician may be viewed as uncaring. As Mary's case so clearly illustrates, patients and their families see the system and the physician as one. Only by working to improve the systems of delivery will academic physicians again be consistently viewed as caring.