Stop calling physicians 'second victim' of medical errors, patient advocates say

The medical community should stop referring to physicians as the "second victim" of a medical error, four patient safety advocates wrote in an editorial for The BMJ.

The editorial's authors are:

  • Melissa Clarkson, PhD, assistant professor in the division of biomedical informatics at the University of Kentucky in Lexington
  • Helen Haskell, president of Mothers Against Medical Error in Columbia, S.C.
  • Carole Hemmelgarn, patient advocate from Highlands Ranch, Colo.
  • Patty Skolnik, president of Citizens for Patient Safety in Centennial, Colo.

The term "second victim" dates back to 2000, when Albert Wu, MD, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, coined the term to highlight the importance of offering emotional support to physicians involved in a medical error. The term has since been broadly adopted across the medical community.

The authors underscored the importance of supporting healthcare professionals involved in a medical error but said it's time to drop the "second victim" phrase, which undermines physicians' responsibility to provide safe care.

"By referring to themselves as victims, healthcare professionals and institutions subtly promote the belief that patient harm is random, caused by bad luck and simply not preventable," the authors wrote. "This mindset is incompatible with the safety of patients and the accountability that patients and families expect from healthcare providers."

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