When Patrice Weiss, MD, was a resident, a healthy, low-risk patient underwent what should have been an uncomplicated vaginal hysterectomy. But the patient developed a series of postoperative complications leading to multisystem organ failure and a lengthy stay in intensive care.
“None of us could really figure out how this happened. I still can’t figure out how this person who was relatively young developed all these complications,” said, now chief medical officer of Carilion Clinic and professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and Research Institute, both in Roanoke, Va. “There are times when you don’t know why something happened or what you could have done differently – and the answer may be nothing – but that dramatic, potentially very complicated outcome can really weigh on people. You still harbor those feelings of a second victim.”
It’s the health care professional who is that “second victim,” a term coined in 2000 by Albert W. Wu, MD, professor of public health at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, to describe an increasingly recognized phenomenon following unexpected adverse patient events, medical errors, or patient injuries (). The patients and their loved ones are the first victims, but a health care professional’s feelings of guilt, shame, inadequacy, and other powerful, complicated emotions can have long-lasting effects on his or her psyche, clinical practice, and career, particularly if he or she does not receive validation, support, and access to resources to work through the experience.
“Second victims ... become victimized in the sense that the provider is traumatized by the event,” Susan D. Scott, PhD, of the University of Missouri Health System, Columbia, and her colleagues wrote in aabout the phenomenon (Qual Saf Health Care. 2009;18:325-30). “Frequently, these individuals feel personally responsible for the patient outcome. Many feel as though they have failed the patient, second-guessing their clinical skills and knowledge base,” they said.
It’s that latter part that can fester and potentially poison a health care professional’s ability to function, according to, senior director of medical operations for Ob Hospitalist Group in Greenville, S.C.
“and therefore can have a direct effect on patient care and lead to poor outcomes,” Dr. Jaynes said. “It’s a very dangerous phenomenon because it can degrade the quality of medical care provided.”
Most physicians are trained to internalize and compartmentalize these experiences, to “suck it up and get on with it,” he said, but it’s now become clear that such a strategy can have disastrous professional and personal consequences.
“In the worst case scenario, people burn out, drop out or commit suicide, their marriage ends up in shambles, or they turn to drugs and alcohol,” Dr. Jaynes said. “What Dr. Wu did was open the box to allow some empathy and compassion to be introduced to the situation.”