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The Reasoning Behind Inexperienced Healthcare Personnel’s Mistakes

The Reasoning Behind Inexperienced Healthcare Personnel’s Mistakes

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PA group of residents eagerly perform complex surgery in the middle of the night while the attending surgeons who are supposed to supervise them are happily sleeping at home. Why is this very real scenario a bad idea? Why do interns, residents, nurses, and others make errors that injure patients? The answer lies in learning theory, they are simply inexperienced healthcare personnel.

The Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition used by Pat Benner, a nursing theorist, breaks knowledge into two components: “techne” and “phronesis”. Techne knowledge is book knowledge: the information that is captured from procedural or scientific knowledge. The student must be given safe and clear directions on how to proceed, as there is no previous experience on which to draw. For example, a student nurse I supervised discovered her patient was short of breath. She attributed the symptom to anxiety, talked to the patient about her concerns, and held her hand. A more experienced person would have applied oxygen.

The second kind of knowledge is phronesis, which is acquired through learning in the practice setting. A nurse who makes a series of rapid decisions during an emergency draws on phronesis. The rapid response team members in hospitals are made up of experts who use this kind of knowledge.

Benner’s Model of Expertise

The evolution of the expert practitioner passes through stages

The evolution of the expert practitioner passes through stages

Benner’s model of expertise, which is based on the Dreyfus model, describes how an individual may pass through five stages in developing expertise. Not everyone reaches the proficient or expert stage.


The novice rigidly adheres to rules or plans, has little situational perception and can’t make judgments. This individual is learning skills in clinical settings and must be closely supervised when delivering patient care.

Advanced Beginner

The advanced beginner is a new graduate. The person functions with limited situational perception (the ability to put clues together to make decisions) and has difficulty discriminating between what is important.

Competent Practitioner

The competent practitioner can see his or her actions within a broader context and is capable of making sounder judgments. Conscious deliberate planning takes place along with standardized and routine procedures.

Proficient Individual

The proficient individual sees the situation holistically rather than in terms of its component parts. This individual more readily makes decisions, perceives differences from the normal pattern of a patient, and functions better with ambiguity. The proficient person has learned from experience and has an easier time making decisions.

Expert Practitioner

The expert practitioner no longer relies on rules, guidelines or maxims, and intuitively grasps what is important in a situation. A registered nurse with expert knowledge may well exceed the knowledge of inexperienced physicians and may save a patient’s life by insisting on evaluation, diagnostic testing, change in medication, or another needed course.

A clinically experienced person enters a new healthcare setting as a new employee without knowledge of politics, procedures, and policies. It takes the time to learn “how we do it here.”

And thus, we face the dilemma in health care: an inexperienced person will not learn without the opportunity to do so. He or she has to start somewhere. Yet, we don’t want that person to learn on us, our mother or father or child.

When my husband had a triple bypass three months ago, the cardiac surgeon at Johns Hopkins proactively told us that he performed surgery. He said he had people in the operating room helping him, but he did the surgery. We were relieved to hear that.

A fair number of medical or nursing malpractice cases that come into Med League involve errors made by inexperienced people, whether they are new employees or new healthcare practitioners. Here are my suggestions:

  1. Attorneys handling medical or nursing malpractice cases should be careful to determine the level of experience of the defendant. Determine the degree of supervision that should have been provided versus what was actually provided.
  2. Ask about the orientation program the new employee should have received. Determine how much orientation staff agency employees received.
  3. Ask the defendant if he or she sought help. Some of us, whether because of age, culture, or personality, would rather try to solve problems without help. This can be a recipe for disaster.
  4. If you or a loved one needs care, seek the most experienced practitioner or hospital you can find.
  5. If you or a loved one detects the person assigned to your care seems unfamiliar with your needs or medical equipment, insist that individual seek help from a more experienced person. Be an advocate for safety.
  6. If you or a loved one needs surgery in a teaching hospital, insist that the attending physician is present. You may even cross off the consent form that allows residents and interns to perform parts of the surgery.

What do you think? How should inexperienced people learn? Send us a comment.

Med League provides medical expert witnesses to trial lawyers. Please call us at (908)788-8227 or contact us today to discuss your next case.

Parts of this blog post came from Moniaree Parker Jones, “Nursing Expertise: A Look at Theory and the LNCC certification Exam”, Journal of Legal Nurse Consulting, Spring 2007. Other parts came from the School of Hard Knocks.

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