Booklist review of “When We Do Harm”


It’s a scary thought: Medical mistakes are more prevalent than you’d ever imagine. In a 2016 study, preventable medical errors ranked among the leading causes of deaths in the United States. Ofri, an internist at Bellevue Hospital in New York and author (What Patients Say, What Doctors Hear, 2017), concludes that medical mistakes are inevitable but that “most medical errors are the result of a cascade of actions that compound one another.” To illustrate her point, she utilizes the poignant stories of two people with tragic endings. A 39-year-old bank manager and fit Navy reservist is diagnosed with acute leukemia complicated by sepsis. A Kansas man in his late sixties suffers second-degree burns covering 30 percent of his body surface. Ofri examines medical harm, bad outcomes, the practice of defensive medicine, litigation, electronic medical records, and the culture and working conditions of health-care professionals. She suggests methods to avert medical mistakes—checklists, clinical thoroughness, good communication, humility, responsibility—and ways to proceed after an error happens. An essential read for anyone involved or interested in the care of patients.

 — Tony Miksanek

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