Can we avoid human error in veterinary practice?

Posted on November 09, 2016 by Gudrun Ravetz

Operating in theatre ‘To err is human’, so the saying goes. But if you’re a clinician, such as a doctor or a vet, your errors can have life-changing and life-threatening consequences for your patients. The truth is, in both human and animal medicine, mistakes do happen. They happen because of human fallibility.

Research published by the University of Nottingham in 2015 shows that human error is the largest single cause of mistakes made by veterinary surgeons when treating patients. It’s an issue on which the veterinary world is significantly behind human medicine.

What can the veterinary profession learn from the medical profession?

The BVA Congress opening session at the London Vet Show, The vet did it! Can we overcome human error in veterinary practice? (BVA Congress Theatre, 09.30 – 10.50am, 17 November), will look at what the veterinary profession can learn from the medical profession. Over the last 25 years, the medical profession, fuelled by public concern, has investigated the causes and types of medical error in patient care, drawing on research from other safety critical industries such as aviation. This work led to the publication of the World Health Organisation (WHO) surgical checklist which has been implemented across the world.

I am very much looking forward to chairing this session at BVA Congress. I think it will be of enormous value to all of the veterinary team and will help them to put in place systemic processes and tools that help veterinary surgeons do the best job possible and avoid error wherever we can. But I also know that no system will be 100% infallible and mistakes will still happen. So I think we also need to talk about how we handle error as individuals, practices, and a profession.

We all make mistakes, so let’s talk about it

There can be a perception that we cannot fail, or be seen to fail, as veterinary surgeons. In my experience, there is not a single vet I know who has not made a mistake in their work at some point; some small and some not so small. We just don’t talk about it. And as a veterinary family, perhaps we should.

Leaving a swab or surgical instrument in a patient shouldn’t happen but I know that we will all have heard of when this has happened or accidentally done it ourselves. In this kind of situation, the right outcome is always to be open and honest about our mistakes, and learn from them. Being honest and discussing the mistake with the whole team and owner allows us to implement procedures to make sure that it cannot happen again. Most of us will now count swabs before and after surgery but this wasn’t always common practice.

What we do and how we react when things go wrong can really test us and our relationships with both colleagues and clients. Developing and maintaining a culture of checklist can help to reduce and hopefully eradicate avoidable errors but just as important is an open communications culture that embeds a trusted speak up culture for all members of the team.

I hope that you will come and join me at this lecture which I think will be invaluable for anybody working in the veterinary team and ultimately could save lives.

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Gudrun Ravetz

Written by Gudrun Ravetz

BVA past President

Gudrun currently works as a Veterinary Consultant for Denplan and is an interviewer for prospective students at University of Liverpool. Gudrun was previously President of the Society for Practising Veterinary Surgeons (SPVS). Follow @RavetzGudrun on Twitter.