Practicing on autopilot

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May 01, 2005

During the first few years of practice, it's not unusual to dig through textbooks, go online, or read up on cases during spare time. But somewhere around the third year of practice, most of us gain a level of comfort with medicine that stems late-night reading. We go on autopilot.

The autopilot feature isn't necessarily a bad thing; it generally means you've developed enough confidence in your skills that practice becomes more routine. Productivity and efficiency soar because you aren't second-guessing yourself as often. With a few more years under your belt, you'll likely be on autopilot even more often.




But this routine efficiency brings some possible dangers. One example: A colleague contacted me upset that a patient had received an incorrect dose of a medicine in a series of refills. How could that happen? The mistake was totally out of character for this extremely thorough doctor.

I joked with the doctor about a ticket I'd recently received for going through a stop sign. I usually come to a full stop at stop signs, but this one was at the bottom of a hill I drive every day—I probably got to the point where I didn't really notice it anymore. On the plus side, I'll be paranoid about getting another ticket, so I'll pay better attention to all aspects of driving. My advice to my distraught colleague was to use the mistake as a reminder to switch off the autopilot now and again.

Frankly, most of us need the reminder. As general practitioners, we're facing new challenges, but we may not be seeing them as clearly as we could because we're so comfortable.

From a liability standpoint, we're expected to be experts in almost all areas of medicine. Yet a series of animal law and liability sessions I attended at the North American Veterinary Conference last January showed that, as a profession, we're clearly unprepared for upcoming changes in malpractice law.

So turn off your autopilot a few times a day. Stop to think for yourself, and double-check your work. Yes, mistakes are part of life—but the legal community isn't very forgiving. So make sure you're still learning from your mistakes. And, in fact, be sure you're still learning in general—whether you're a new grad or a seasoned professional.


Dr. Jeff Rothstein
Veterinary Economics Editorial Advisory Board member Dr. Jeff Rothstein, MBA, is the president of The Progressive Pet Animal Hospitals and Management Group, which owns and operates veterinary practices in Michigan and Ohio.