* * Anonymous Doc: When Doctors Forget How To Use Computers...

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

When Doctors Forget How To Use Computers...

I sit down at the computer at the nurse's station to write a few notes.  A bunch of windows are open on the screen.  I open a new window and log in to check my work e-mail.  I click back to the notes system while the e-mail is loading.  I start to write a patient note.  I go back to the e-mail and I see a couple of unread messages.  The first is from a family member of a patient whose name I definitely don't recognize.

"I had a question about my father's medication..."

Confused, I write back a short note.  "I think you may have sent this to the wrong address."  I push send and go back to the notes system.

I finish the note, and click back to the web browser.  That's strange-- the other unread messages don't seem to be there, and the one I just read and replied to isn't there either.

I notice there are two browser windows open.  I click on the other one, starting to panic.

It's another doctor's e-mail window... and the system has just logged me out automatically.  I see the login name and I realize what's happened.  An attending-- an attending I've never met-- forgot to log out of her e-mail.  I read a message from one of her patients... and answered it.  And now I'm logged out and can't even correct the mistake, or remember the name of the patient.

The right thing to do, I suppose, is to e-mail that doctor and try to explain what happened.  "We haven't met, but I'm a new fellow.  I didn't notice that you were still logged into your e-mail at the nurse's station, thought it was my e-mail, and accidentally read a message from a patient family, though I can't recall which one, with a question about medication, and wrote back that I thought the e-mail may have been sent to the wrong address. And by the time I realized my mistake, the system had logged you out.  Also, I'm not usually this incompetent."

Alternatively, I can quietly pretend this never happened.  The family will probably resend the e-mail, or call the office.  The doctor may notice a strange sent e-mail, or maybe she won't.  She may be confused.

It would be so easy to pretend this never happened.  I'm untraceable.  I don't know how to send that e-mail to the attending I don't know without seeming like a crazy person.  I read her e-mail?  I replied to one of her patients?  It's not like I said something so crazy.  It's not like it was an emergency.  It's not like I deleted the e-mail.  It would be so much easier to pretend this never happened.  I really don't want to send that e-mail.  I really don't want to send that e-mail.

Doctors have to make hard choices sometimes.


  1. LOL this is a tough one... Like you said, it's not a dire emergency, so maybe it'd be fine to not email her...it WAS an honest mistake after all...It's less creepy than emailing her a "I read your emails" email too... Just an opinion :)
    Love your blog!!

  2. Sent. Wow ur honest, Respect.

  3. If she gets her nose out of joint over this, just remember she was the idiot who forgot to sign out of her email.

  4. You've gotta suck it up and admit to the mistake. As Old MD Girl noted, she is equally culpable here in having violated hospital IT policy so she'll probably be just as embarrassed about the whole thing.

    And thanks for the laugh! Sorry this one is at your expense...

  5. You could create an anonymous official-sounding e-mail address and send out an IT warning that "someone may be hacking into e-mail accounts and sending unauthorized e-mails." Advise that everyone should review their sent messages. Now, you don't have to send an awkward e-mail about how you used the account in error. History has taught us that it's always better to cover up one mistake with a barrage of lies.

  6. email her and explain what happened. Make sure she knows you didn't read all her emails.

  7. I wish you posted more often. Your blog is my favorite.

  8. That was really quite an experience. If I were in your shoes I'll just forget about it, like nothing happened. You are honest and a good man.
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  9. I think you can take responsibility without assuming so much guilt and incompetence.

    Just stick to the facts: "Earlier today, I didn't notice that you were still logged into your e-mail at the nurse's station, thought it was my e-mail, and inadvertently read a message from one of your patient's family members with a question about medication. I wrote back that I thought the e-mail may have been sent to the wrong address. It was [approx time] on [date.] Sorry for the inconvenience."

    Now you've made it easy for her to go into her sent mail and contact the patient, saved her greater inconvenience and eased your conscience.

  10. The attending is lucky it was you and not one of the hospital's lawyers who discovered the open e-mail account. Can you say HIPAA violations? The attending screwed up; you made an honest mistake. Own it, and if the attending is decent they'll realize how lucky they are.

  11. I agree with those who said "Fess up." We need follow up on this. Tell us what you did.

  12. It was just an honest mistake, it is more awkward if you tell the other doctor about what happened. and I'm really curious of what you did after this..