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? 

You can share your story by joining our Patient Harm group on Facebook, or emailing me directly at marshall.allen@propublica.org.

And if you’re a health care provider, I’d love to hear your side of the story, too.


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