A recent coroner’s report caught my attention (highlighted by HSJ’s Shaun Lintern via Twitter). A patient died from a ruptured aortic aneurysm, and during the investigation it was discovered that it had been seen on a CT scan four years earlier. However, the patient never came to hear of it, the GP was not informed, and no follow-up was arranged. The coroner now requires the Trust, through a letter to the Secretary of State for Health, to review its arrangements for flagging up ‘non- cancerous but significant and potentially life-threatening findings’ on scans.
The aspect that worried me was that the consultant, who had read the report and was intending to tell the patient in clinic 5 days later, never saw him. He was seen by a trainee, and the trainee either did not see the scan result or did not understand its significance. This made me think about clinical decisions being made in consultants’ names, but without consultants being aware of them. Does this really happen? Yes.
Consultants lead teams. In some clinics, 30 or 40, even 50 patients will be seen in a consultant’s name, but because the consultant is only able to see perhaps a third of those personally, the rest will be seen by trainees. Those trainees will have some specialist knowledge, but they may be three or four years out of med school. As trainees, they are supervised, but the level of supervision will vary.
During my training, I never saw a clinic where trainees discussed all of their patients with consultants. Rather, consultants relied on trainees to use their judgment and ask questions about challenging cases when they felt it was necessary. Then, as now, many patients were seen, investigated (and perhaps discharged) without the consultant having been directly involved in the decision. This is more common in bigger hospitals, where there are more trainees and larger clinics. It may sound alarming, but just as junior doctors see patients in the emergency department or on the wards, and make important decisions day after day, so they do in clinic too. (In fact, the terms ‘junior’ and ‘trainee’ sit uncomfortably with experienced professionals in their thirties.) Nevertheless, if a trainee misses the point entirely, or overlooks a subtle sign or important result, there is always the possibility that a dangerous conditions could slip through the net.
On the wards, every action and decision is made in a consultant’s name. I remember explaining to relatives, and on one occasion a coroner, why certain clinical decisions were taken by another – perhaps at night when I was not even in the building – but ‘in my name’. When pressed by both whether I thought those decisions were ‘right’, I had to pause. If it had been me on the ward at that time, I might have interpreted the information differently. I might have prescribed a different drug, or referred to another specialist sooner, but… it wasn’t me. It was a trainee, and they did what they thought was best. It wasn’t wrong, but it wasn’t necessarily, in retrospect, as right as it could have been. If there were errors in judgement, short of outright negligence or something amounting to an incident that requires reporting and the duty of candour, it will be dealt with through their educational supervisor. It would seem wrong to allow the full weight of responsibility to lie on the trainee’s shoulders. After all, I have to remember – a few years ago, that trainee could have been me.
So what is the consultant’s responsibility here? Are they truly responsible for the patient’s outcome, even though certain important decisions are not in their control.
Well someone has to be responsible. Consultants stay in one hospital for a whole career (usually), while trainees move on. In the case of the missed aneurysm there was a delay of four years before the error was noted. The trainee who may or may not have seen the result, or who failed to chase up the results of the scan, would have moved on. They are out of the frame. It was the consultant who had to explain what happened to the coroner. In that case, ‘the system’ took the blame (the way in which x-rays were reported and flagged). This is often the case, and in a blame-free culture that encourages reporting of error, it often has to be the case.
The system is often inefficient. The system may have intrinsic gaps which are unsafe. As doctors, we complain about the system all the time, but perhaps this is where our responsibility truly lies. To be open to the possibility that the system we are working is imperfect, and to accept of our role in improving it. That is why consultants must also be continual improvers of quality. It is not enough to moan. If weak areas are identified, we must engage in strengthening them. If we find gaps, we must close them. We must complain, escalate, and help to fix. That is the quality that should be scrutinized, rather than the (superhuman) ability to detect and personally manage every patient who passes through our service.