Coping with mistakes in an effective way
Mistakes happen to all of us in veterinary practice; this article looks at how different people react in different ways when things go wrong and – importantly – discusses how we can best cope with mistakes.
Mistakes are common in veterinary practice, and can have significant consequences among veterinarians when there is a “blame and shame” culture.
Adverse events, whereby a mistake results in harm to a patient, are more likely to result in longer-term negative impacts on a veterinarian’s life compared to harmless mistakes.
Disclosing the mistake to the pet owner, uncovering the technical aspects that will help prevent a recurrence, and leaning on others for support enhance recovery after a mistake.
Emotional learning enhances resilience after a mistake; this can include practicing mindfulness, striving for excellence rather than perfection, and cultivating self-compassion.
Some degree of error is unavoidable with any human task, which means veterinarians are at risk of making mistakes when performing their clinical work; in fact, mistakes are an inevitable part of the practice of veterinary medicine. While mistakes are to be anticipated through one’s career, the fear of mistakes remains one of the most common practice-related stressors cited by veterinarians 1. This fear can be exacerbated by moral stress, where an individual is working amidst circumstances that lead to ethical conflict 2; for example, when a short-staffed practice team is managing a complex case, or when a veterinarian is asked to perform a surgical procedure that they feel unqualified or untrained to do. In these and other similar situations that cause moral stress, the perceived risk of error increases and the veterinarian is more vulnerable to psychological distress.
Fears regarding mistakes pertain not only to the potential harm to the animal, but also concerns about possible litigation, complaints to the veterinary governing body, and the perceptions of clients and colleagues. In many circumstances, the first inclination is to hide the error due to fears about being blamed or having personal feelings of shame. Some veterinarians who make errors or are involved with adverse events have the potential to bounce back quickly with skills and coping strategies that cultivate resilience, but those who dwell on the mistake itself or subscribe to shame-induced self-criticism are more apt to experience long-term distress afterwards, or may even consider leaving the profession altogether. Important steps must be taken to embrace the idea that mistakes are a normal part of veterinary practice, to remove the “blame and shame” culture that persists in veterinary medicine, and to mindfully approach the mistake with disclosure, perspective, support, and technical and emotional learning. Mistakes are an inevitable part of veterinary practice and they require mindfulness to recover quickly and effectively.
How common are medical errors?
Approximately 1.5 million preventable adverse events occur in the United States human medical field each year, with almost 100,000 deaths attributed to medical errors annually 3. The incidence of mistakes in veterinary medicine has been less robustly quantified but is similarly common. A recent study was designed to evaluate the type and severity of medical errors reported in three US veterinary establishments (a small animal teaching hospital, a large animal teaching hospital and a small animal multispecialty practice) using a voluntary incident reporting system. Errors were categorized as described in Table 1 with examples. Incidents were also classified as resulting in either a near miss (i.e., error did not reach the patient but could have caused harm if it had), a harmless hit (i.e., error reached the patient but did not cause harm), an adverse event (i.e., error reached the patient and caused harm), or an unsafe condition (i.e., circumstance or condition increased the probability of a patient safety event). Records were reviewed retrospectively to gauge the severity of the error 4. During the 3-year study, 560 incidents were reported, the equivalent of about 5 errors per 1,000 patient visits. This is notably higher than human primary care visits, where approximately 1 in every 1,000 visits results in preventable harm. Drug errors were the most common error identified in the study, followed by failures of communication. Errors reached patients without causing harm 45% of the time, but 15% of all incidents resulted in patient harm, including 8% that resulted in permanent disease or death. The highest proportion of errors occurred in the small animal teaching hospital, although this may simply have been due to more diligent reporting 4.
Another study tallied the types of errors that occurred based on almost 3,000 claims records submitted to the principal veterinary indemnity insurer in the United Kingdom; this found that mistakes involving surgery were most common (41%), followed by medical treatments (30%), parturition (13%), diagnosis (9%), advice (5%), and anesthesia (2%). Further evaluation of a subset of those claims determined that 51% of the errors occurred due to cognitive limitations in the form of absent-minded errors of distraction (i.e., slips or lapses) and rule- or knowledge-based mistakes. Rule-based mistakes resulted from an incorrect application of knowledge, whereas knowledge-based mistakes resulted from incorrect attempts to figure out complex problems 5.
Table 1. Categories, descriptions, and examples of medical errors in veterinary practice.
|Drug||A mistake with medication administration||Wrong drug administered to a patient|
|Iatrogenic||A mistake with procedures or treatments (other than medication)||A mistake made during surgery|
|System||Delays, missed treatments, or protocol problems||A person forgets to administer a treatment|
|Communication||Confusion over patient orders||A miscommunication results in the wrong patient being treated|
|Laboratory||A lost or mislabeled specimen||A person mislabels a blood vial causing the results to be incorrectly assigned|
|Oversight||A diagnosis is missed or there is a deviation from the standard of care||A veterinarian misdiagnoses a patient as having kidney failure rather than Addison’s disease|
|Staff||Insufficient staff or training result in a mistake||An untrained team member incorrectly places a feeding tube into the airway of a patient|
|Equipment||A piece of equipment is unavailable or needs repair||A monitor is broken and not available to monitor a patient’s ECG and detect an arrhythmia|
Putting mistakes in perspective
A 2001 survey of more than 100 new UK graduate veterinarians revealed that 78% had made a mistake since starting practice 6. However, it should be articulated that not all mistakes cause harm, just as not all adverse events result from mistakes. While some adverse events resulting from mistakes are due to negligence (i.e., failing to meet the standard of care), in some circumstances an individual will follow the correct procedure but make a mistake in the process. For example, a veterinarian may follow the standard of care by taking a radiograph to ensure that a nasal feeding tube is placed appropriately in the gastrointestinal tract – yet might review the radiograph and think that the tube is properly positioned when it is inadvertently placed in the airway; this would result in an adverse event if the dog is then administered food through the tube (Figure 1). Veterinarians will also sometimes hold themselves responsible for an unpredictable complication such as a drug reaction or the inherent biological variability of their patients, forgetting that animals treated in the same way for the same disease can have different outcomes. These scenarios are not the result of a mistake, but the clinician may take responsibility for their decision-making process that led to the adverse outcome.
Consequences of near-misses and adverse events
Results from an online survey of more than 600 members of the Veterinary Information Network revealed that 74% of respondents reported involvement in at least one near-miss, and 30% reported involvement in at least one adverse event 7. The proportion of veterinarians experiencing both short- (≤ 1 week) and longer-term (> 1 week) negative impacts on their personal and professional lives were higher among respondents experiencing adverse events compared to near-misses (Table 2). This suggests that the negative consequences of making a mistake are worse when the patient is harmed compared to when the patient is not adversely affected, and also that the negative impact is felt more professionally compared to personally.
Table 2. Proportion of veterinarians adversely impacted in their personal and professional life after near-misses and adverse events.
|Short-term (≤ 1 week)||Longer-term|
|Adverse event||Personal life||78%||51%|
Response to adverse events in practice
An online survey investigated the experiences and reactions of veterinarians working in “spay-neuter” clinics after serious adverse events that resulted in an unintended complication or death, and found that all respondents felt an immediate visceral reaction that included signs of anxiety or stress equivalent to the sympathetic nervous system fight-or-flight response. The feelings respondents described in conjunction with their physical experiences included anxiety, guilt, sadness, and self-doubt, as well as empathy for the clients or others impacted by the events (Figure 2). Some veterinarians processed and moved past these feelings within a day or a week, whereas others were deeply affected for months or even years afterwards. Over time, this resulted in one of two long-term outcomes: choosing to stay in their job or leaving their job (or the profession). What seemed to separate the veterinarians who were able to demonstrate resilience and move on faster after the adverse event from those who continued to experience it as recurrent trauma were the strategies they used for coping in the aftermath of what happened 8.
Negative and positive coping strategies
Unhealthy coping strategies after a mistake or adverse event can include substance use (i.e., drugs or alcohol), excessive sleep, avoidance behavior, over- or under-eating, and withdrawing from friends, family, or regular activities. In many situations there is an inclination to hide the mistake or not disclose the adverse event due to concerns regarding potential personal or professional ramifications. Because veterinarians often exhibit trait perfectionism, (i.e., an intolerance to mistakes or flawed behaviors), a mistake or adverse event is often accompanied by overly critical self-talk and profound concerns regarding other people’s views or opinions. A study investigating veterinary students found that self-oriented and socially prescribed perfectionism were associated with neuroticism, which had a negative correlation with resilience 9. Encouraging positive coping strategies and mitigating perfectionistic beliefs are important to quicken and enhance one’s ability to recover after mistakes.
There are many positive strategies that can help to mitigate the negative consequences of clinical mistakes and adverse events. These include disclosure; technical learning; perspective and appraisal; support and collegiality; and emotional learning in the form of mindfulness, healthy striving, and self-compassion.
Research demonstrates that patients prefer to know when a mistake was made, even if no harm was caused 10. A comprehensive review of the disclosure of patient safety incidents in human medicine demonstrates that healthcare professionals also support the admission of adverse events to patients and their families. The review affirmed that patients want frank and timely disclosure, an apology where appropriate, and assurances about their future care 11. The same needs likely exist for pet owners, meaning that it is important for veterinarians to maintain the belief that clients deserve to have all the information in the event of a patient-related error. An apology can be made to the owner, along with an explanation of what is being done to prevent the mistake from happening again (Figure 3). An offer to pay for any treatments needed following the error can also help to mitigate guilt among the veterinary team. Animals can then receive all additional treatment required consequent to the mistake, concerns regarding otherwise unexplained problems are decreased, and the veterinarian-client-patient relationship can be strengthened. The goal is that everyone has an opportunity to process and recover from the emotional stress of the situation, and less likely to engage in “blame and shame” behavior.
Spay-neuter veterinarians involved in an adverse event were less likely to experience long-term personal or professional consequences and more likely to remain working if they tried to ascertain to learn why the mistake happened 8. Engaging in technical learning after a mistake can not only uncover why it happened, but also what can be done differently next time (Figure 4). An inability to understand what went wrong and how to prevent the same adverse event happening again are associated with increased anxiety for all members of the veterinarian team impacted by the mistake. Most importantly, the overall safety of the practice will be improved when errors are recognized, and steps can be taken to avoid the same mistake in the future. For example, if a mistake occurred because a protocol was unavailable or outdated, the protocol could then be written or updated with added safeguards to prevent the error from happening again.
Perspective and appraisal
After an error, it is important for the veterinarian involved to see the situation in its wider context – i.e., in terms of all the animals that have been helped and how few have been harmed. While mistakes happen, this does not mean those who make mistakes are “bad” veterinarians, and although it is natural to feel guilt, it is important to avoid that progressing to feelings of shame. Guilt stems from having done something wrong or failing to meet an expectation or obligation, whereas shame results from the concern about how a person appears to others. Shame is an intensely painful feeling or experience of believing a person is flawed and thus unworthy of belonging – so when a veterinarian makes a mistake, their shame is the feeling that others will believe they do not deserve to practice veterinary medicine. In other words, guilt is “I made a mistake,” whereas shame is “I am a bad veterinarian.” Guilt is a reasonable emotion and something most humans would feel after a mistake, but shame is unproductive, unhelpful, and leads to disconnection. It is important to resist feelings of shame and isolation and accept that everyone makes mistakes. It can also help to put limits on the magnitude of the situation; for example, recognizing that a patient did not die or that other patients were not impacted. Likewise, maintaining the belief that there is “more to life than veterinary medicine” can reinforce a healthy perspective.
Support and collegiality
Social support and a sense of belonging are important during stressful times. Specifically, if an individual believes that there is someone to lean on during times of duress, this offers protection against distress 12. So for errors in practice, knowing that someone else has “been there, done that” can bring incredible relief to someone who has made a particular mistake for the first time. Veterinarians who experience an adverse event are encouraged to lean on family, friends and colleagues for technical advice and psychosocial support (Figure 5). Sharing the experience with a trusted person or private social media group can be one way of garnering assistance and mitigating shame. It is also important to demonstrate support to other team members, as those who feel blamed rather than supported for reporting a mistake will be less likely to divulge the truth in the future and take longer to bounce back afterwards.
How veterinarians handle and support themselves through an adverse event is paramount to their recovery 8. Rumination or dwelling on the situation will only lead to more distress, especially in combination with self-criticism. Self-doubt can be countered by having the humility to know that veterinarians risk doing harm while trying to do good. Likewise, distressful emotions are unavoidable after mistakes, and should be anticipated, and managing those emotions with mindfulness, healthy striving, and self-compassion are positive and helpful coping strategies.
Mindfulness is a mental state achieved by focusing awareness on the present moment, while calmly noticing and accepting any feelings, thoughts, or bodily sensations without judgment. This helpful technique – increasingly researched during the last decade - can be used by individuals who find themselves ruminating on past mistakes or worrying about when the next mistake might happen. The benefits are numerous; a mindfulness practice can decrease anxiety and depression; help to manage substance use; improve physical conditions such as chronic pain, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and rheumatoid arthritis; enhance immune function; and manage hypertension 13. Most notably, it can reduce the detrimental effects of stress on the brain and body. Alterations in brain circuitry and complex brain function measured during neuroelectric and neuroimaging (e.g., functional MRI) studies are demonstrated in those who practice mindfulness, whereby cortical structures associated with attention, memory, executive functions and affective regulation are altered. This demonstrates that a mindfulness practice fosters attentional and emotional self-regulation, as well as behavioral flexibility. Changes in the limbic system, which controls emotions, behaviors, motivations and long-term memories, have also been noted in those who practice mindfulness 14.
After an error, it is important for the veterinarian involved to see the situation in its wider context – i.e., in terms of all the animals that have been helped and how few have been harmed.
Research investigating the benefits of mindfulness practices among human healthcare workers demonstrate many important benefits. Mindfulness training helps nurses cope more effectively with stress by improving their ability to remain focused and calm during stressful situations 15. In addition, nurses that complete mindfulness training have demonstrated improved clinical performance, an ability to cope with negative emotions, an awareness of thoughts and feelings during stressful events, and the ability to respond to the needs of patients 16. Medical students, physicians, and nurses also demonstrate improved self-awareness and self-care, as well as reduced risk of professional burnout when mindfulness training is completed 17. Additionally, a mindfulness practice has the potential to reduce adverse events among healthcare providers. A recent study in China compared a cohort of physicians who were randomized to either a meditation group or a control group. Mindfulness, patient safety culture, and patient safety competency were significantly higher among the physicians who had participated in the 8-week mindfulness meditation intervention compared to those in the control group, whereas adverse events were significantly lower 18. These findings suggest that not only can mindfulness mitigate stress, enhance self-care and positive coping strategies after a mistake, it also has the potential to lessen adverse events entirely.
Similar findings are arising in the veterinary literature, with suggestions that mindfulness practices can be beneficial – for example, a mindfulness training program reduced stress among faculty staff at a Caribbean veterinary school 19. Likewise, a study investigating salivary cortisol and α-amylase concentrations, as well as stress among fourth-year veterinary students performing a live animal surgery, found that those who performed a 5-minute mindfulness breathing exercise before the procedure had lower α-amylase and an improved sense of relaxation and calmness 20. As such, veterinarians are encouraged to regularly engage in formal mindfulness practices such as breathing exercises, body scans, yoga, or meditation (Box 1) to enhance their ability to stay present-minded and to improve mental health after mistakes or adverse events. Informal mindfulness practices can also be inserted throughout the workday, whether between appointments, during breaks, or while commuting. In these moments, especially when the mind is racing or ruminating, redirecting awareness to the present moment by focusing on breathing or noting the physical sensations in our body can be helpful. Practicing the 5-4-3-2-1 exercise (Box 2) is another way to lessen the stress response and become aware of the here and now.
Box 1. Examples of downloadable apps for starting a meditation practice.
Box 2. How to complete the 5-4-3-2-1 exercise as an informal mindfulness practice.
It is an unrealistic expectation to think that, as humans, veterinarians will make it through their careers without making a mistake. It is not that veterinarians intend to harm an animal or that they are not being careful enough, it is because they are human and imperfect. So while many veterinarians expect themselves to be perfect, this belief inherently leads to psychological distress when mistakes are made. Healthy striving toward providing the best medical care based on the resources and time available is a much more productive and less destructive approach to clinical practice. A review of perfectionism among human healthcare providers during the COVID pandemic suggests that the stressful experiences of the global health crisis were exacerbated by the already high level of distress among perfectionists 21. The authors of this study advocate striving for excellence rather than striving for perfection, in terms of realizing when “good enough” is indeed “good enough” and learning not to internalize work-related dissatisfactions such that they then become generalized dissatisfactions with oneself. Accepting that at times “good enough practice” is better than “perfect practice” is paramount for veterinarians to maintain realistic expectations and avoid distress.
Because veterinarians often exhibit trait perfectionism, (i.e., an intolerance to mistakes or flawed behaviors), a mistake or adverse event is often accompanied by overly critical self-talk and profound concerns regarding other people’s views or opinions.
It is normal for distressful emotions to be felt after making a mistake, and it is important to manage them with forgiveness and self-compassion, i.e., compassion directed inwardly. Research investigating self-compassion and resilience among Australian veterinary students using an online survey found that students with higher self-compassion scores also had higher resilience scores 22. Similarly, acute care human nurses with higher self-compassion scores had lower scores for secondary traumatic stress, which is used as a measurement of compassion fatigue 23. These findings suggest that cultivating feelings of self-compassion can enhance a veterinarian’s ability to recover after a mistake or other similarly stressful event. This is reinforced by a recent report that found training can help healthcare providers cultivate self-compassion, leading to the promotion of self-care and reduced self-critical judgment 24. Self-compassion consists of three key states: self-kindness, mindfulness, and recognition of common humanity (Box 3), and it can be cultivated by using a variety of exercises such as self-compassion meditation, taking a self-compassion break, or performing self-compassion journaling (Table 3).
Box 3. Definition of the three components of self-compassion. *
|Self-kindness||treating yourself as if you were a close friend who was going through a difficult time.|
|Mindfulness||being open to and aware of your suffering without getting caught up in it or swept away by negative reactions and stories.|
|Recognition of common humanity||accepting that everyone is imperfect and flawed and will make mistakes or endure difficulty|
(* From Self-Compassion by Dr. Kristin Neff: see https://self-compassion.org/)
Table 3. Steps for self-compassion journaling with examples.
|Reflection||Think about the mistake and write down everything you feel bad about or judge yourself for.||I mistakenly miscalculated an intravenous constant-rate infusion for one of my patients. He became exceptionally sedated and nauseated and had to be hospitalized for an extra day. I should have double-checked my calculations and intervened sooner when the dog’s demeanor changed.|
|Mindfulness||Become aware of the painful emotions that you are feeling and write them down.||I am feeling guilty and ashamed. My stomach and head hurt when I think about what happened.|
|Common humanity||Write down how this mistake is connected to the larger human experience.||Everyone makes mistakes, especially when they are feeling exhausted or busy.|
|Self-kindness||Write some kind and understanding words of comfort.||It is understandable that this happened. I was doing the best I could during a short-staffed and rushed day. Next time I will be sure to take my time and double-check my dosage calculations.|
Mistakes are common in veterinary practice and can impact veterinarians throughout their career. The ramifications of mistakes can be devastating, culminating in long-term personal and professional consequences or even a decision to leave the profession. Enhancing the resilience of an individual in the aftermath of a mistake is of paramount importance, and can be achieved with healthy coping strategies that include disclosing the error to the pet’s family, uncovering the technical aspects that will prevent the mistake happening in the future, broadening perspective as to the impact of the mistake, leaning on others for support, and emotional learning in terms of mindfulness, healthy striving, and self-compassion.
Vande Griek, Clark MA, Witte TK, et al. Development of a taxonomy of practice-related stressors experienced by veterinarians in the United States. J. Am. Vet. Med. Assoc. 2018;252:227-233.
Montoya AIA, Hazel S, Matthew SM, et al. Moral distress in veterinarians. Vet. Rec. 2019;185:631.
Stelfox HT, Palmisani S, Scurlock C, et al. The “to Err is Human” report and the patient safety literature. BMJ Qual. Saf. 2006;15:174-178.
Wallis J, Fletcher D, Bentley A, et al. Medical errors cause harm in veterinary hospitals. Front. Vet. Sci. 2019;6:12.
Oxtoby C, Ferguson E, White K, et al. We need to talk about error: causes and types of error in veterinary practice. Vet. Rec. 2015;177:438.
Mellanby R, Herrtage M. Survey of mistakes made by recent veterinary graduates. Vet. Rec. 2005;155:761-765.
Kogan LR, Rishniw M, Hellyer PW, et al. Veterinarians’ experiences with near misses and adverse events. J. Am. Vet. Med. Assoc. 2018;252:586-595.
White SC. Veterinarians’ emotional reactions and coping strategies for adverse events in spay-neuter surgical practice. Anthrozoös 2018;31:117-131.
Holden CL. Characteristics of veterinary students: perfectionism, personality factors, and resilience. J. Vet. Med. Educ. 2020;47:488-496.
Gallagher TH, Waterman AD, Ebers AG, et al. Patients’ and physicians’ attitudes regarding the disclosure of medical errors. J. Am. Med. Assoc. 2003;289:1001-1007.
O’Connor E, Coates HM, Yardley IA, et al. Disclosure of patient safety incidents: a comprehensive review. Int. J. Qual. Health Care 2010;22:371-379.
Michie S, Williams S. Reducing work related psychological ill health and sickness absence: a systematic literature review. Occup. Environ. Med. 2003;60:3-9.
Grossman P, Niemann L, Schmidt S, et al. Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits: a meta-analysis. J. Psychosom. Res. 2004;57:35-43.
Ivanovski B, Malhi GS. The psychological and neurophysiological concomitants of mindfulness forms of meditation. Acta neuropsychiatric 2007;19:76-91.
Green AA, Kinchen EV. The effects of mindfulness meditation on stress and burnout in nurses. J. Holist. Nurs. 2021;39:356-368.
Sarazine J, Heitschmidt M, Vondracek H, et al. Mindfulness workshops effects on nurses’ burnout, stress, and mindfulness skills. Holist. Nurs. Pract. 2021;35:10-18.
Burton A, Burgess C, Dean S, et al. How effective are mindfulness-based interventions for reducing stress among healthcare professionals? A systematic review and meta-analysis. Stress Health 2017;33(1):3-13.
Liu C, Chen H, Cao X, et al. Effects of mindfulness meditation on doctors’ mindfulness, patient safety culture, patient safety competency and adverse event. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2022;19:3282.
Artemiou E, Gilbert GE, Callanan A, et al. Mind-body therapies: an intervention to reduce work-related stress in veterinary academia. Vet. Rec. 2018;183:596.
Stevens BS, Royal KD, Ferris K, et al. Effect of a mindfulness exercise on stress in veterinary students performing surgery. Vet. Surg. 2019;48:360-366.
Flett GL, Hewitt PL. The perfectionism pandemic meets COVID-19: Understanding the stress, distress and problems in living for perfectionists during the global health crisis. J. Concurrent Disorders 2020;2:80-105.
McArthur M, Mansfield C, Matthew S, et al. Resilience in veterinary students and the predictive role of mindfulness and self-compassion. J. Vet. Med. Educ. 2017;44:106-115.
Upton KV. An investigation into compassion fatigue and self-compassion in acute medical care hospital nurses: a mixed methods study. J. Compassionate Health Care 2018;5:7.
Beaumont E, Irons C, Rayner G, et al. Does compassion-focused therapy training for health care educators and providers increase self-compassion and reduce self-persecution and self-criticism? J. Contin. Educ. Health Prof. 2016;36:4-10.