To Do No Harm: Safety as a Professional Obligation

Allan Korn, MD, for HealthLeaders Media, February 9, 2011

Of all the ancient injunctions one finds while paging through the Hippocratic writings, the most profound for me is the one which admonishes physicians “to do good or at least do no harm.” In fact, the famous oath specifically calls for the physician to “consider the benefit of patients,” “give no deadly medicine,” and “abstain from whatever is deleterious and mischievous.”

I emphasize these points not to provide a history lesson, but because of the growing concern I have that safety is not yet on a par with other medical precepts like surgical technique or confidentiality.

How often have we heard the line “the surgery was successful but that the patient died?” Such deaths are not always attributable to errors in the operating room, but to post-operative infections, medical errors, and problems at home due to poor discharge instructions or lack of proper follow-up care.

To back this up, let me offer just one statistic, the consensus is that nearly 100,000 Americans are losing their lives each year in hospitals due to medical errors and many more are harmed by infections and medication-induced complications. Sadly, these deaths and injuries were avoidable. Can we prevent them in the future? Yes, I believe we can. As Chief Medical Officer for the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association, I am constantly meeting and discussing with fellow physicians and providers the need to make care safer, more patient focused and more affordable.

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