Unseen Scars: Exploring the Psychological Impact of Clinical Errors

The NHS is an undeniably positive thing in the UK, but lately, it has been coming under fire for falling standards of patient care. Clinical errors appear to be rising, as funding falls, with catastrophic impacts for patients and wider national trust.

Clinical errors are usually described in terms of their physical or medical impact. News stories and civil cases alike lead with the scope of negligent care and its consequences, whether a misprescribed drug allows cancer to proliferate or a rogue surgeon causes irreversible damage in the operating theatre. What often isn’t covered, though, is the psychological impact of such medical invasions. What are these impacts, and how can they be addressed?

Clinical Errors and Mental Health

Suffering a clinical error can be immensely impactful in mental health terms; medical professionals have a duty of care over their patients, and any failure of that duty of care can feel like a violation. Take, for example, surgical errors. Patients are permitted surgeons to make the necessary movements to treat a given condition, and any extraneous cuts or decisions remove autonomy from the patient, as well as introduce complications.

This basis, coupled with the direct impacts of newfound injury or disability on the patient’s life after the error, can create fertile ground for the development of serious mental disorders, from depression and anxiety to post-traumatic stress disorder.

Strategies for Recovery

Speak to Someone

The first thing a victim of clinical error should do – and perhaps the most important thing they can do – is to talk to someone else. Such an experience can be an immensely isolating thing, not only due to the uniqueness of their experience but also due to the progressively limiting impacts of poor mental health in the aftermath. For many, reaching out can even feel counterintuitive. 

However, talking through the experience and any resulting feelings with a friend or family member can open the door to recovery. Not only does the victim start a process of self-reckoning and healing, but their ordeal is shared with a network there to support them, and to gently nudge them in the right direction as time goes on.

Seek Legal Counsel

The next step, while not directly related to tackling the psychological impacts of clinical error, can go a long way to assisting in recovery. Where a clinical error has occurred, there may be a strong civil case for medical negligence against the medical professional or facility responsible.

Through civil action, compensation for costs incurred by care, accommodations, transport, lost wages and, crucially, emotional distress, can be recouped. The legal process, while taxing, can also amount to some form of closure for the ordeal, allowing the victim to move on with their lives. 

Seek Therapy

Of course, a direct address of the mental health consequences is recommended – and therapy is the best iteration of that address. Through therapy, victims can talk through their experiences and emotional reactions in a controlled environment, and get coached towards a better understanding of themselves and their feelings. Private therapy is ideal for this, but the NHS-offered CBT can also be useful in giving victims the right tools to proceed with the recovery. 

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