Dr. Sanjay Gupta On Medical Mistakes: "Idea Doctors Just Move On... Is Not True"

Dr. Sanjay Gupta, executive producer of a new medical drama on TNT, talks about the impact of medical mistakes on doctors.

When Sanjay Gupta, the Emmy Award-winning chief medical correspondent of CNN, was writing his first novel, Monday Mornings, which is now the basis for a new medical drama on TNT premiering February 4, he had something very much in his mind -- he wanted people to get a better sense of the relationship doctors have with their patients.

"I think that there's an interesting stop to the conversation in medicine when a doctor makes a mistake, a patient thinks that's a bad doctor," Sanjay told me during a casual interview at TNT's studios in Atlanta. "And they may even think that's a bad human being. And they may be right in some situations but I think what they don't see is how hard the doctors... can be on themselves."

Monday Mornings, which takes place in a fictional Chelsea General Hospital, centers around secretive meetings that actually happen at hospitals around the country, where surgeons talk about mistakes that were made -- some of them deadly. Many doctors "really internalize" their mistakes," said Sanjay, who still practices neurosurgery in addition to working for CNN and CBS, and writing three best-selling books. "They... carry it with them. They would make it so that people could learn from that mistake."

Sanjay adds that his new show is not designed "to try and gain sympathy for the medical establishtment... I think it's more an effort to tell the whole story."

Watch as Sanjay talks about how he hopes his new show, Monday Mornings, gives people more of a sense of what doctors go through.

 

Sanjay said he's never personally been responsible for any dramatic mistake such as operating on the wrong side of the head, but he's definitely been in situations where he felt somebody might not be getting the best care they could get and wondered if a mistake were made. "I also think that most doctors, if you ask them about their careers near the end of their career, for good or bad, what they typically remember the most are the bad outcomes."

He tells the incredible story of a friend of his -- a pediatric heart surgeon in Arkansas, who was enormously talented and developed a "ventricular assist device" for kids who were awaiting transplants. He committed suicide a couple of years ago, and in a letter wrote that even though there were thousands of children that he had helped, there were a couple of kids he lost -- and that appears to be what he couldn't stop thinking about. "Obviously, doctors don't kill themselves often but that's a sentiment I think a lot of doctors share," he said.

With the stakes so high (I joked that the worst thing that could happen to me in my job is I do a bad interview -- no one is going to lose their lives), I wondered how Sanjay and other doctors like him deal with the life or death aspect to their decisions and mistakes.

"A lot of doctors cope with this in different ways," he said. "I think the idea that doctors just move on to the next thing, and it's another day at the office type of thing is just not true. And it can be painful... Some doctors I've seen completely paralyzed by it. They cannot continue practicing... They have to go in a different direction in life," said the 43-year-old who's been practicing medicine for nearly 20 years. "There are some who just become emotional, hard stones you just can't penetrate any more. And I'd like to think that I'm somwhere in the middle of that, where I don't let go of those things. I think that that's wrong. I just don't think you let go of these things but you don't become paralyzed by them either. You think about these patients."

Come back for more from Sanjay this week when he shares how he balances everything he does (medicine, journalism and now Hollywood!) with raising his three gorgeous girls, and his reaction when he learned David E. Kelley was interested in turning his book into a TV show (hint -- he didn't believe it!)

Kelly Wallace, who knows Sanjay from her work at CNN and CBS News, is Chief Correspondent of iVillage. You can follow Kelly on Twitter (@kellywallacetv).

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