Speak Up and Save a Life!

No matter what profession you work in, you will find everyone can make mistakes.


The medical field literally holds the lives of others in their hands and mistakes can significantly injure patients. It is therefore essential that errors are recognised and acted upon promptly.

However, this profession is one of the most difficult for concerned staff and colleagues to have ‘their say’ because of the hierarchy that exists.

Junior staff can feel uncomfortable pointing out to colleagues in a more senior position that they think they are making a mistake, or that they are in the wrong and will in all likelihood feel that their opinion doesn’t matter.  In some cases, by making this bold move, injury or indeed a loss of life could be prevented.

Surgical errors

Mr Matt Lindley flies jumbo jets and trains doctors in safety. He recalls a case where a surgeon was preparing to operate on a child's hand. A junior member of staff noticed they were about to operate on the wrong hand - but her fears were dismissed. She tried again. He said: "It's quite unusual, a lot of people just back down after the first time you're not acknowledged. She was told quite bluntly to be quiet." The team finally realised they'd operated on the wrong hand about 10 minutes into the procedure. Afterwards, the junior doctor said she felt guilty, but also that she didn't have the skills to make herself heard.

Mr Lindley said she should have been assertive - and used certain ‘trigger words’ such as "I am concerned. I am uncomfortable. This is unsafe. Or we need to stop”. His opinion is that whatever position you sit within the pecking order, to ignore those four trigger words would be very, very difficult."

Mr Lindley runs a course for doctors with regards to listening out for these trigger words when undergoing medical procedures. Feedback has been positive with doctors saying that they wished they had received this training at the start of their careers.

Mr Frank Cross is a vascular surgeon who works in London. He remembers vividly a mistake he made 30 years ago - leaving a swab behind in a patient's body during an operation on her bowel. When the patient came back complaining of a lump in her abdomen a few months later the swab was detected and removed. He says it's always better to own up; "You need to be open and honest if you make a mistake, and show that you are sorry."

'Never events'

In 2012/2013 in England there were nearly 300 "never events" – these are incidents which can cause serious harm or death and are wholly preventable. In 2013/2014 this rose to 338. The figures from 2014/2015 are yet to be fully published due to a delay, but the provisional total of “never events” is 308.

To conclude, if you think a colleague is in the wrong and is about to make a mistake, have the confidence to voice your concerns - you will thank yourself in the long run (as will the patient!). Speak up and help reduce the number of “never events”!