4 ways to deal with communication mishaps on the job

Comstock | ThinkStock
Comstock | ThinkStock

I once spent a good deal of time talking over test results with a patient…who’d had a different set of tests run. A doctor I know once gave the wrong test results to a patient. I heard of a hospice RN who called the wrong family to tell them their loved one had passed away.

All of those things, to a greater or lesser degree, will make you want to crawl under your desk and disappear for a while. In addition to the embarrassment of telling a person the Wrong Thing, there’s the stress on that person if the Wrong Thing was also a Bad Thing…and, of course, you personally look like an idiot.

So how can you cope with communication mishaps on the job?

In my case, the only thing I could do was look up from the papers I was holding (on which the other patient’s name was clearly printed), apologize profusely and retract everything I’d just said. The patient’s family was (luckily for me) quite understanding and not a bit upset. There’s no way to feel less ridiculous, though, so I just made up for it by triple-checking everything I planned to tell them before I walked in the room from then on.

That’s point number one: apologize. Everybody makes mistakes. Most mistakes aren’t earth-shaking.

Point number two is more or less helpful, depending on the situation: be able to laugh at yourself. I’m reluctant to say that you can do so in front of the patient, but remember that you can always do it in private. If you’ve swotted up a lot of information on the wrong condition, it’s a bit like showing up in a ball gown to the wrong party.

Point numbers three and four go hand in hand: Figure out where you messed up and how to avoid that messing-up in the future. If you work in a specialty unit, that might mean asking not to be assigned to five patients with the exact same dysfunction in the exact same place. For some people, it might mean trading assignments so you don’t have two patients with the same last name. For me, it usually means (again) triple-checking my patient identifiers (they’re there for a reason! Who knew?) against the chart.

If you can keep your head and your calm, you’ll keep the patient’s confidence. There will be time enough later to yell at yourself, either in the car or in the mirror. And don’t forget—everybody has made, or will make, the same kind of mistake.

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