How should I respond when medics make mistakes?

I’ll just start off by saying how much I value and support the UK’s National Health Service. Although it is in need of more funding, staff and facilities, the care I have received over the years has on the whole been high quality, and delivered by compassionate staff.

But there have been a few exceptions – rude or ignorant doctors, days spent sorting out incorrect prescriptions, appointments delayed by several hours. And those negative moments have a habit of staying in the memory much more than positive ones.

I received a text message last week, the day after taking my kids for a blood test. The message was actually addressed to Tiny and Small. “Unfortunately not all of your recent blood tests have been tested by the hospital laboratory and a repeat test is needed.” I could have cried. I gripped the handle of the supermarket trolley I was pushing and swelled with anger and annoyance. A text message? To tell me I had put my kids through that horrible experience for their precious blood to be wasted? I couldn’t believe it.

It’s clear from the blogs and comments I come across that frustration with the medical profession is a global issue for people living with chronic illnesses. Wherever you live, and whichever system you are blessed with, the pulling-my-hair-out moments happen to us all.

But I had a choice when I received that text message – to let my annoyance grow and call someone to shout at, or to spend a few hours thinking rationally about the situation before I reacted. I googled ‘reasons for blood tests not being tested’ and basically the answer is, ‘there are lots of reasons it could happen and it can’t always be avoided’. I realised that although it sucks, it may not be anyone’s fault. And even if it was, there was nothing I could do about it.

And so, having calmed down, I called the GP to clarify the situation and order new forms.

The incident made me reflect – sometimes my reaction to medical mistakes can be extreme, because there is so much at stake. Knowing something is wrong and feeling fobbed off or like you are not being listened to adds in to the worry and fear that living with a chronic condition breeds. In this instance, it was a mistake that affected my kids, so add a thick layer of protective instinct to my response!

But doctors, nurses, phlebotomists and receptionists are human too and they will make mistakes. The challenge is to respond in a way that moves the situation forward rather than just getting angry – however hard that may be. That might mean asking to see someone else, making a complaint or trying to find another solution.

A few years ago, I made a complaint about a GP who refused to take my concerns about RA seriously. When I asked, “Please can you refer me to a rheumatologist?” she sighed and said, “I can, but it won’t make any difference.” I left the office with a referral in my hand and my face covered in tears.

The complaint I made was about my experience, but it was also about all those other patients who would see her.  Maybe some of them aren’t as pushy as I am – imagine if that doctor’s attitude caused someone to give up on a diagnosis. If my complaint meant she was forced to consider her manner or improve her skills, then it was worth it. I really hope it made her a better GP.

So, we will brace ourselves for the kids’ next blood test in a few weeks, and try and take the fact that mistakes happen with good grace (even if it does involve some gritted teeth)!


  1. Many years ago my son was doing cancer treatment. He had an intravenous line coming out of his right chest which we had to be meticulous caring for it, so he wouldn’t get a blood infection. While in the hospital, an intern came in to see my son. He had very sensitive skin, so instead of the see-through dressings, he had an opaque one on. This student lifted the dressing to see the site around the line, and then patted it back down. No gloves, no hand washing. I was in shock!! I called the patient representative and the infection control nurse showed up in my room a few minutes later. Even after being called out for what he had done he still didn’t seem to get it. He apologized for causing me mental stress! My son was two weeks away from having a stem cell transplant, and without that line he wouldn’t have been able to do that part of the treatment. Sorry for mental distress doesn’t even match the risk of sepsis and losing that line. Speaking up without screaming does get results. I was later told by that infection nurse that that student would not be accepted as an intern. thank goodness.


    1. Wow that sounds really scary, glad you were able to address it. I would have freaked out! We all make mistakes, but how people respond to being called on them is the really important bit I reckon!

      Liked by 1 person

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