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.