Monday, January 26, 2009

Bad communication-It can kill you!

Every year 98,000 medical errors are recorded in the USA! Makes you want to stay away from the hospital, doesn't it?!

Once, when I worked at a Pittsburgh health care system, the CEO called me to her office to tell me we had a "problem." Turned out one of our nurses killed one of our patients. It had happened before so I wasn't caught completely off guard.

"The nurse poisoned the patient," the CEO said from behind her large walnut desk.

"How did it happen?" I asked, sitting in the dim light before her.

"The doctor ordered 350 grams of chemotherapy for a week for a cancer patient," she said, "and the nurse gave the patient 350 grams the first day. The doctor meant 350 grams, total, for the whole week, 50 grams a day. The nurse poisoned the patient."

"So," I said, "the patient died over a preposition?"

"What're you talking about?" the CEO said, not the least bit amused.

"Well," I responded, "it seems to me the problem was caused by the word 'for' in the sentence, a preposition."

"Right," she said, lifting a piece of paper and her pen, "let's figure out what the hell we're going to say to the media if this gets out. And, we're sure as hell not going to say anything about a preposition."

I thought that was inappropriate language for a nun, but, hey, she was the boss, and for the next half hour we drafted a benign but apologetic statement for any media inquiries.

Yep, bad communication can cause death and disaster. Case in point: Two US Marine fighter pilots died when their jet crashed upon a night landing at their airbase. Puzzled investigators when examining the flight recorder found that, inexplicably, the co-pilot had shut down power to the aircraft just upon touchdown. When the investigators recovered the voice recorder and listened to the pilot, they heard him yelling, "Take off power! Take off power!" After listening over and over to the recording, the investigators finally surmised that the pilot was issuing a command for MORE power, not less! The pilot had accented the words "Take off" but the co-pilot obviously focused on the word "off".

Bad communication can kill you, literally and figuratively. In business it will more than likely just embarrass you to death, just ask Neal Paterson, who was CEO of the Cerner corporation when the NY Times printed one of his emails. Or, ask the hundreds of other business people and politicians (anybody remember Mark Foley of Florida) who have been burned by their communications.

Use caution when you communicate. If you work in a hospital (and certainly if you are the patient), repeat the instructions you receive. Give and examine feedback. Study body language. If you are sending messages, know your purpose and your audience. Realize that your message, in this electronic age, can travel all over the world in an instant. Know that cultures differ and words and gestures take on varying meanings.

Stay alive! Communicate well!

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