Intended for healthcare professionals


Medical error: the second victim

BMJ 2000; 320 doi: (Published 18 March 2000) Cite this as: BMJ 2000;320:726

The doctor who makes the mistake needs help too

  1. Albert W Wu (, associate professor
  1. School of Hygiene and Public Health and School of Medicine, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD 21205, USA

    Personal view p 812

    When I was a house officer another resident failed to identify the electrocardiographic signs of the pericardial tamponade that would rush the patient to the operating room late that night. The news spread rapidly, the case tried repeatedly before an incredulous jury of peers, who returned a summary judgment of incompetence. I was dismayed by the lack of sympathy and wondered secretly if I could have made the same mistake—and, like the hapless resident, become the second victim of the error.

    Strangely, there is no place for mistakes in modern medicine. Society has entrusted physicians with the burden of understanding and dealing with illness. Although it is often said that “doctors are only human,” technological wonders, the apparent precision of laboratory tests, and innovations that present tangible images of illness have in fact created an expectation of perfection. Patients, who have an understandable need to consider their doctors infallible, have colluded with doctors to deny the existence of error. Hospitals react to every error as an anomaly, for which the solution is to ferret out and blame an individual, with a promise that “it will never happen again.” Paradoxically, this approach has diverted attention …

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