Sanjay Gupta: Doctors learn when they admit mistakes

Sanjay Gupta tells Salon why his new novel is set in once-secret "morbidity and mortality" meetings

Topics: Author Interviews, Books, Medicine, PopRX, ,

Sanjay Gupta: Doctors learn when they admit mistakesSanjay Gupta (Credit: AP/Mark Lennihan)

While some people think doctors see themselves as gods, oblivious to their mistakes, the behind-the-scenes reality tends to be quite different. In regular meetings called “morbidity and mortality” (or M&M, for short), doctors close the doors and candidly discuss their mistakes and try to learn from them. The meetings can be full of ruthless — and helpful — self-flagellation.

Most people don’t know they even take place. Now, “Monday Mornings,” a novel by Sanjay Gupta — CNN’s chief medical correspondent and a practicing neurosurgeon at Atlanta’s Emory University — lifts the veil on these gatherings.

While driving one of his three daughters to school last week, Gupta, 42, talked to Salon about his bestselling first novel, how doctors can do better, and the controversial ethics of being both journalist and physician.

What made you decide to leap into fiction?

It was an evolution. Originally, I wanted to write a nonfiction book about my specific experiences as a resident. I always took very diligent notes, and when I pulled them out, it really reminded me about that time. Then I learned that the whole idea that a meeting like M&M even exists was surprising to a lot of people. I had assumed that most people knew that doctors and surgeons got together regularly to discuss their mistakes. It turns out that most people didn’t know that, even ones who work in health care. This was interesting in and of itself. So I wanted to show people that this existed and that it can be one of the most indelible experiences that somebody can ever have. But to do that, it would need to be fiction, so it could be more unrestricted and have some creative power.

What’s the message of the book for doctors and their patients?

I think the biggest point was to expose people to M&M. When a mistake happens, or an unexpected outcome, oftentimes the immediate thought is “That’s a bad doctor.” They may even think “That’s a bad human being.” Most of the time that’s not true, and often doctors beat themselves up, to the point where I’ve seen some of them disengage. They no longer feel they’re up to it. They couldn’t stand the fact that someone got hurt because of something they did. So I wanted to tell a story about how people react to a mistake in medicine, and then to show the accountability that doctors hold for each other is sometimes far worse than any other punitive system. It doesn’t take the place of malpractice or administrative sanctions. This is doctors on doctors — and sometimes that has a much greater impact. It’s a pretty unique thing — the idea that you close the doors and be candid. It’s worth asking whether there’s a role for that kind of meeting in other places in our society as well.

Are we in medicine good at learning from our mistakes?

In 1999, because of the Institute of Medicine Report, people started paying more attention to medical errors. It’s not a great study, and even the way they define mistakes is different [from how others in the field] define mistakes. Still, there’s a problem, and over the past decade or so we have focused on this, and some of the things people have done have been effective at trying to curb mistakes. Yet if you look at the number, there’s hardly any evidence that mistakes have gone down.

So learning from our mistakes requires a more immediate sharing of the lessons.  There’s also the cultural change for any new thing that needs to be done. These things need to come from within the medical community as opposed to being mandated. How do you get a significant cultural change and get everyone to buy into it? One place I saw cultural change happen lightning-fast was through the M&M meetings. It was so indelible and vivid, it just became the way we did things.

During the book’s first M&M meeting, the chairman of your fictional team of surgeons, Dr. Harding Hooten, makes a statement about missing the basics in medicine. Do you think doctors in this country, because of the cushion of medical technology, have lost sight of getting the fundamental medical history and giving a complete physical?

No question. We overtreat. The irony is that we do this in part to prevent errors — and as a result we probably make more errors. As I was writing the book, I read Abraham Verghese’s essay in the New York Times. I attempted to incorporate some of that into Hooten’s dialogue.

Can we go back? Is it too late to regain that appreciation and rely on a conversation with and an exam from your physician?

It’s difficult to go back. I think we can mitigate some of the increase in the use of technology. Some of that was part of the discussions around health care reform. I also think that our tolerance for risk in medicine is different from anything else we do. I hate to be trite, but if a plane crashing every day would equal the same number of people who die each year from medical errors — we haven’t done a good job of explaining risks and benefits very well. Even informed consent is almost like a hat tip; people do it because they have to, not because they really sit down and really have a conversation about the risks.

What about the patient’s side of the equation? When you see the story of the face transplant or the former vice president getting a heart transplant, you’re left with the view that in American medicine, all things are possible. Is there a way we can communicate better what it is what we can and cannot do? 

Yes. It’s hard because people want those stories. It’s a tough balance, and we have to be very careful in our reporting to present the risks of things. I think people tend to focus on costs, but they don’t talk as much about risk.

When you were in Haiti in 2010 covering the earthquake, some people criticized you for becoming part of the story when, with cameras rolling, you began caring for patients at an abandoned medical camp. What’s your view of balancing journalistic objectivity with your commitment as a physician?

It’s a little bit artificial to say journalistic objectivity and helping people when you can are somehow at odds with one another. I’m not in way trying to demean journalistic objectivity. But whether or not you’re a physician, if you can help someone as opposed to just sitting there, I think most people from a human standpoint will do that. Anderson [Cooper] for example, was in a situation once where a boy was getting pummeled with rocks. He was right there and grabbed the kid and pulled him out. You would do it. Anybody would do it.

It’s worth pointing out that so much of the time I was in Haiti, for example, I was going to general hospitals and doing things. It wasn’t stuff for the cameras. There was just a tremendous need, as journalists get into these situations so quickly. Many times we are the first ones there before anybody else. In Haiti we were there within 12 hours of the earthquake because we have such an infrastructure built into the work that we do. In Iraq, I was embedded with Navy doctors; I was reporting on them and what was happening. And then I was asked to operate because there were no neurosurgeons there.  I took some criticism for that, and that was early on in my career, and I was a bit befuddled by it. Having trained as a doctor, why would anybody think that I wouldn’t do it? But when I came back and had lots of conversations with lots of other people in the journalism community, they raised the question of whether I can be objective. I think it was a worthy discussion to have, but as a general rule, I don’t think putting on a press badge means parting with your humanity. I’m pretty comfortable that as a journalist-physician, I am a physician first.

How do you keep a balance between your duties as a doctor and your duties as a journalist?

It’s pretty busy. I like to make rounds early, around 5 to 5:30 a.m., so I can come back and take the girls to school. I find that the car rides are the only times where you get one-on-one time and get to talk. When you have three kids, the house is active.  The medical stuff, the work, has a pretty defined schedule. Every Monday and every other Friday I operate. In total, it’s about 2.5 days a week of work. Straddling two fields, I have a view of both. I know medicine’s changed a lot. But when I wake up in the morning, when I’m in the operating room, there’s such a clear sense of purpose. It’s very hard to replicate that in anything else I do or anywhere else in society. I love that part of my life.

Rahul K. Parikh is a physician and writer in the San Francisco Bay Area. He wrote the Vital Signs column on Salon in 2008-2009. His pop culture-medical column, PopRx, runs on alternate Mondays.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>