Imagine that you’re a medical student on placement or junior doctor on a hospital ward. A patient’s blood sample has gone missing, and you need to explain to them that another one needs to be taken.
It doesn’t have to be blood - it could be stool, urine or some other bodily substance of your choice. This is a common type of question, which combines a number of issues. The best way to approach these scenarios is to consider what the patient might see from their point of view when faced with this scenario.
Firstly, the concept of their privacy. Blood bottles can feature a patient’s first name and surname, their ward, their date of birth and more besides. At the very least, this information is now in the open, and potentially visible to anybody else on the ward, including other medical staff, patients and even visitors. Because this information is supposed to remain entirely confidential, the patient might think that a breach of trust has occurred.
Secondly, having a blood sample taken is not a comfortable procedure at the best of times for many people, particularly if multiple attempts were needed. Because of a hospital mistake, they have to undergo this pain again.
The last talking point you could consider is that of delayed test results. Because the first sample has been lost, another must be taken which involves coordinating the required staff (a doctor, nurse or phlebotomist) and sending the collected sample for testing once again. This by necessity results in the tests taking longer to come back, which may cause additional stress in patients anxious about their condition.
The key thing to remember when approaching communication, as with all answers in these scenarios, is to be completely honest. Absolutely do not use euphemisms such as ‘a small mishap’, and remember to be polite when delivering the news. You should listen very carefully to any concerns the patient has, and do your best to explain that you empathise with them.
Some stock phrases you might use for inspiration:
“Mr Johnson, I’m very sorry but there has been a mistake and your blood sample has been lost in the hospital. We need to take another from you, and I apologise that you have to go through that again during a time that must be stressful for you. We will do our very best to maintain your privacy and will get the results to you as quickly as we can.”
“I’m very sorry Mrs Lindham, we don’t know the whereabouts of the blood sample that was taken from you yesterday. In order to get your results back to you quickly we need to take another one. I completely understand if this frustrates you and I’m deeply sorry for what has happened, but we want to do the best we can for you moving forward. Please let me know if you have any concerns.”
Simply put, own the mistake, be courteous and deliver the news in as straightforward a manner as you can. The patient has every right to be irritated or upset, so hear them out and make sure they know that you have taken their views on board. They must be absolutely clear on what exactly has happened, why it has happened, and what the next steps are.