Mar 12, 2019

Of Humerus Fracture & Swiss Cheese Model

Yesterday as I left the clinic I was suddenly overcame with a feeling of trepidation. I felt as if I had done something wrong somewhere but it's a vague sensation with some poor memory recollection of what actually had transpired in the first place. Later that day in the ED group there's an alert of a patient being wrongly discharged with a soft tissue injury following a fall where in fact she sustained a fracture of her right humerus bone. The doctor who was seeing her did not noticed the fracture from the x-ray. Turned out the doctor was ME.

I was utterly devastated. I was only informed of the error when I entered my night shift last night. I knew that the x-ray was somehow familiar but for the life of me I couldn't recall which patient I was seeing and whether I had assessed the patient properly before deciding that it wasn't a fracture and discharge her home with just painkillers. The x-ray in question is this:

There's an EP (Emergency Physician = specialist) who is in charge of reviewing each and every x-rays done to all patients who are discharged home without referral to any primary team (Ortho, Surgical, etc.) and he was the one who saw my mistake. To my (and everyone) horrid, I was alone in managing the case and I did not consult any registrar or EP regarding the x-rays and just took the matter on my own. The EP and his team managed to call back the patient after multiple calls made (God bless her, she was at school the whole day! KILL ME!), a U-slab was plastered on and patient was discharged with a referral to Orthopaedics clinic as outpatient.

Upon further asking colleagues around, it was determined that the patient I saw was in fact a patient who was halfway been seen by another colleague who covered for me when I went for Friday prayer. She had assessed the patient but at the time when I came back and did the pass-over the x-ray in question was not done yet. Add to the fact that I saw the patient near the end of my shift, there's a lot of cases that I still needed to see - the pressure and stress to finish it without extending my shift hours for too long had added to the error. It was my TERRIBLE MISTAKE for not reassessing the patient MYSELF and subsequently missed the fracture, leading to a wrong diagnosis and wrong management for the patient.

In Medicine, there is a thing we called Swiss cheese model of incident causation. Whenever an error is made, there should be a committee or someone in charge who will evaluate the whole situation in finding out everything about the said error, from the cause of it, the risk factors that can lead to the error, people or systems that are involved in facing the errors, and finally to the consequences the error caused. This whole thing is called a risk-stratification. I now will continue with my shameful but necessary reflection using this model. Sob.

Imagine a stack of multiple Swiss cheeses like this:

  1. Each layer of the Swiss cheese represents level in the organization involved who faces the potential error. Error here is the end result or the actual damage that happened. The arrows in the diagram above are the hazards, or simply put, a potential error.
  2. An error is made when every layer of the organization failed to stop the hazards from going through the emmental holes or the flaw in the system / organization (see the longest arrow above).
  3. Understanding what the flaws that exist in each layer help us to stop the hazards from going through, thus preventing it to be an error. A prevented error is also called a near-miss incident.
  4. Notice that in each layer some holes / flaws are bigger than the other. However, the smallest flaw can still permit a hazard to pass through unresolved. That hazard then can pass on to the next layer with a potentially larger flaw.
  5. In my case, the layers of cheese can be made up into three layers:
    • Green zone, where I first saw the patient
    • Registrar / EP on call, who are assigned to supervise the doctors in Green zone
    • EP in charge of reviewing all x-rays of patients discharged home of the day
  6. In this model there is also what we called latent failures and active failures.
    • latent failures are the system or environment that passively contribute into causing hazards. In my case: congested patients in Green zone, too few doctors to attend the case, among the few.
    • active failures are the one who directly causing the hazard. In this case, it's ME. I failed to assess patient myself, I failed, to correlate the symptoms with the imaging, I failed to notice the error, I failed to discuss with my bosses, among the few. In the future I would see myself ALL PASS-OVER cases that were handed to me. I will even retake the history and repeat the assessment MYSELF. Also, all imaging of high-risk patients I will discuss with my bosses, no matter how much I know it's gonna cost me more time and my patience.
  7. In the second layer, I would say the flaw was that I found it cumbersome to reach my bosses when it was too hectic. They are available to be reached for case discussion, but they can also be terribly busy at most times. I'm painfully aware it's MY FAULT anyway for not approaching them and in the future, I would discuss with them all cases that I find.. high risk.
  8. The third layer is when the hazard stopped. My EP noticed the mistake, made the patient to come back to the hospital to get the appropriate treatment, the mistake had been alerted and I had found it discerning but it is for my benefit anyway (sob!) so that I can reflect on it properly.
  9. I would say it is not a complete error, because the hazard was identified and correction was done promptly. An actual error (I'm trembling now) would be that there is a neurosensory loss and the arm of the patient was affected badly due to my incompetence. I would say I felt the steely haunting stare of Miss Rifa behind my neck, cursing me on my stupidity and wishing she had never passed my Ortho rotation viva assessment back then.

After my last night shift ended today on which I worked the whole early morning with such a gloomy mood, thinking that I am never gonna be good enough, that I should just quit being a doctor and cursing myself for even thinking of taking paper, or that I would never see patients in the clinic anymore - now that I wrote this down, properly reflecting on what I had done wrong and planning on how to avoid making the same mistake, I feel a bit better. Well, I still know I am stupid, but now with a renewed spirit to become less of an idiot.

Okay, that's it for now. Pray for no more error from me in the future. Ameen.

PS: What's the fracture and what are the nerve and artery that rarely but may be damaged?


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  2. Surgical neck of humerus fracture
    Artery axillary
    Nerve axillary nerve resulting in loss of sensation over regimental badge area and loss if shoulder abduction