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October 2004

Striving for Imperfection: Facing Up to Human Error in Medicine

Arch Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2004;130(10):1149-1151. doi:10.1001/archotol.130.10.1149

All humans make errors.1 All physicians are human. Therefore, all physicians make errors. This Aristotelian syllogism, while simple to understand, contains a wealth of unexplored territory for the medical profession in the 21st century.

Physicians confront error daily. This is hardly unique: every human working on a task confronts the possibility of imperfect performance. But unlike most professions, physicians live with the awareness that when they err, other humans may suffer. This is a concept we grasp intellectually but as long as we genuinely care about our patients will always struggle with emotionally. Every one of us knows we can err and that our errors can cause suffering. But every one of us also knows the natural, human, and incredibly powerful emotional desire to avoid that reality.