How to Be Successful: Admit Mistakes

Last week, I was teaching a cardiovascular course.  I am not a cardiologist.  I said that in PDA cases, the right ventricle will dilate due to overload from the left side.  I think I was visualizing a VSD in my mind when I gave that answer.  One of the students pointed out that the textbook indicated that PDAs develop left ventricular hypertrophy, but didn’t say anything about right-sided changes.  I read up on the topic more and realized I had misspoken.  I addressed it with the student who brought it to my attention and then told the class about it so they could correct it.  Did I feel a little awkward?  Sure.  But that’s what professionals do.

Everyone makes mistakes.  Error is an intrinsic function in human activity.  We are not perfect.  Countless cognitive biases ensure that we do not perceive reality objectively and do not act in perfect rationality or with perfect clarity.  Mistakes happen due to complex reasons.  For the purposes of this post, the question isn’t, “Who made this mistake”, the question is, “What do you do WHEN you make a mistake?”

One university I worked for had a discussion among the faculty: what do we do with students who make a medical error which results in patient harm?  We ultimately decided on three scenarios:

  1. The student realizes the mistake.  They identify it and notify the supervising clinician.  They take responsibility for it.  Maybe they explain how or why they made the mistake.  They may offer to talk to the client about it.
  2. The student realizes the mistake.  They identify it but do not report it.  They report it but blame someone else, like the technicians.  They do not take responsibility for making or contributing to the error.
  3. The student does not realize the mistake.  They carry on with their day, and the patient suffers.

In scenario 1, the student may still get an ‘A’ grade for that rotation.  In scenario 2 or 3, the student may fail that rotation.  EVERYONE MAKES MISTAKES.  The issue is, how do you deal with it?

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was, “In ANY situation, what could YOU have done differently to affect the outcome?”  Even if it wasn’t your fault.  Someone cuts you off in traffic?  What could you have done?  Maybe you could have left more space for the next car.  Does a student get hurt in a martial arts class?  What could you have done?  You could have changed the exercise or partner assignments.  One of my students fails an exam?  What could I have done?  Maybe I could have identified them early and contacted them to provide suggestions for answering my exam questions.  WHAT COULD YOU HAVE DONE? None of these is to say that it was your fault that something happened. You’re simply admitting that you could have taken action that might have mitigated the circumstances.

Admit mistakes.  Accept responsibility.  Humans are imperfect, flawed beings.  You will mess up.  When you do, acknowledge it, take responsibility, and work to make it better.

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