I found myself in the hospital recently, watching my 11-year-old son get an X-ray for an arm he broke after a fall from his skateboard. As the technician positioned his arm on a table beneath the X-ray machine, she directed me to stand in the corner of the room, behind a protective window, so I wouldn't be exposed to the radiation.
The computer that ran the machine happened to be in the same corner, and, being curious, I read what was on the screen. The monitor showed my son's name, date of birth and other basic info – that all looked good. But it also said it was set to do an X-ray on a moderately sized adult. That didn't sound right. My boy only weighs about 80 pounds!
That’s where I faced a dilemma that I’m sure is quite familiar to anyone who has been a patient or watched a loved one undergoing medical treatment: Should I question the X-ray technician, or should I keep my mouth shut?
You can probably guess what I did. I didn’t want my son exposed to too much radiation, and I also wanted to be sure the X-ray was done correctly, so I pointed out the apparent discrepancy to the X-ray technician.
You can probably guess how she responded. It chapped her hide. “The machine’s setting is fine!” she said, clearly irritated. “I do this all day long. I know what I’m doing.”
I don’t doubt that she was correct. I’m sure she knows her machine, and that the setting was just fine for my son. But at the same time, I wondered what she had expected me to do when I saw the setting. Was I supposed to turn my brain off and not ask a question about the apparent discrepancy?
Other than this minor flare-up, my son was extremely well taken care of during his visit. But the exchange with the X-ray tech definitely had a chilling effect on me – and I’m pretty comfortable with conflict. And it made me wonder about other patients or family members who question medical providers. If my small question during a routine procedure on a healthy child with a minor injury created irritation and tension, then how much worse is the chilling effect during more extreme circumstances?
Plus – if patients or their loved ones do not speak up, then how many possible medical errors can occur?
The incident made me wonder how many others have had a similar experience. Have you ever faced this dilemma? Did you speak up? Did you decide not to? What happened?
And if you’re a health care provider, I’d love to hear your side of the story, too.