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Doctors make mistakes.

TED posted this powerful talk today about the toxic culture of perfectionism in medicine. This shows the importance of acknowledging mistakes—not only for patients, but also for quality improvement efforts and for physicians’ well-being.

It takes a lot of courage to do what this doctor did: to get up in front of a crowd and trot out a laundry list of personal mistakes. Most doctors seem to have one story they’re willing to tell, usually about a mistake they made during residency. So is Dr. Goldman just a terrible doctor? Maybe. But he felt it was important to speak on this topic, which tells me he’s probably a great doctor. And if great doctors make mistakes like this, what does that say about the mediocre doctors? So many errors and near misses go unreported and unacknowledged. How can we fix the system and care for our doctors when we don’t know the whole story?

The Secret Life of Pronouns

I just finished reading Jamie Pennebaker’s book, The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say about Us. Dr. Pennebaker is a social psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin. He studies how language relates to who we are and how we interact with others. This book provides an interesting look at the intersection between linguistics and, well, everything else. Here are 5 things I learned while reading this book:

  1. Reading this book has made me incredibly self-conscious about everything I write. This includes the number of I-words in an email to my boss and the manuscript revisions I’m working on with several colleagues. As I build this website and blog, I am hyper-aware of every first-person pronoun (I or we) and what information I’m conveying. It reminds me of the first time I read Sam Gosling‘s research on what our personal spaces say about us. Suddenly, you feel naked, like every word or action reveals who you really are. On the flip side, it makes me curious about who I “really am.” A quick analysis of journals, emails, and Facebook comments could be fascinating… Read more

The Milgram study

Ask any social psychologist what their favorite experiment is, and the Milgram obedience study is bound to come up—repeatedly. If I ranked my favorite studies, it would definitely be in the top 5. It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve learned about it or taught undergrads about it. Every time, I feel like I come away with a new way to think about the findings.

The other day I was listening to Radiolab’s episode “The Bad Show,”which is about why people do bad things. Not surprisingly, they discuss the Milgram study. Read more

Language and executive functioning in the brain

A couple years ago, I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Angie Laird, a professor at UTHSCSA‘s Research Imaging Institute. Her work involves mapping pathways of neural activity using neuroimaging data and connecting these pathways to behavioral and cognitive processes. During our meeting, Dr. Laird shared with me some fascinating discoveries, which were recently published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience (Laird et al., 2011).

Let me just say that I am not a neuroscientist. I’d need a whole stack of books (and maybe some classes) in order to fully understand this paper. Still, this paper—specifically Figure 4—has stuck with me. Every so often, I come back to it, still trying to wrap my head around what it means. Read more

Trust and disclosure of medical errors

Last week I attended a discussion about the disclosing medical errors to patients. The discussion was structured around an example case in which a patient was given the wrong medication but fortunately experienced no complications as a result. As with most hospital errors, this represented a failure at several steps of a complex process, with mistakes by multiple people/departments. When the nurse realized the error, the nurse asked a member of the medical team to write a prescription for the medication the patient actually received (i.e., a prescription for the error).

In high-reliability organizations such as healthcare, aviation, and law enforcement, trust is vital. Errors could cause deaths, so workers must carefully coordinate complex actions (e.g., airline travel). High-reliability organizations prevent catastrophic errors by fostering strong relationships, honesty, and trust. For this trust to develop, there must be psychological safety. When teams share a sense of psychological safety, they feel safe admitting errors, challenging others’ views, and engaging in other types of “interpersonal risk taking” (Edmondson, 1999). Psychological safety plays a role in whether providers disclose errors within the organization—to fellow team members, to other teams, and to administrative personnel.

But what about the patient? Read more

Losing time

If you haven’t heard of it, WNYC’s Radiolab is an excellent radio show/podcast. Radiolab describes itself as a show where “the boundaries blur between science, philosophy, and human experience.” I highly, highly recommend it.

The episode “In the Running” talks about Diane Van Deren, an ultra-runner who has won several 50- and 100-mile races. Because of a seizure disorder, a large chunk of her temporal lobe was surgically removed. Importantly, the temporal lobe helps us to understand time and space. After the surgery, Diane developed short-term memory loss. Spatial and temporal reasoning became more difficult for her. But when she started ultra-running, these deficits gave her an important advantage: she loses track of time. To listen to the episode, click the audio player below (episode starts 3 minutes in):

Read more


As 2012 begins, I’m excited to launch this website and blog. This blog will give me space to write about interesting work related to my research. If you stumbled onto this half-empty website, please be patient. It will fill up quickly!