When Good Nurses Make Mistakes

The next day, as I prepared my medication tray with shaking hands, two physicians sat at the nurses’ station, talking too loudly as they discussed the medication error and wondered which nurse had made it. Overhearing them, I turned to confess, feeling like a marked woman. They muttered something in my direction, shook their heads, and quickly returned to their charting.

That’s an excerpt from fairly late in “Roger’s Angst,” the Reflections essay in the April issue of AJN. It explores the crippling shame, anxiety, and self-doubt that good nurses can feel when they make mistakes. And it suggests that no one, however conscientious they may be, is free from error in a long career—though few ever reveal their little secrets, even if we might all gain from the knowledge. A touchy subject, to say the least; we hope you’ll read the entire essay and consider weighing in with your own experience. Anonymous comments are, as always, fine.—JM, senior editor/blog editor

Senior editor/social media strategy, American Journal of Nursing, and editor of AJN Off the Charts.


  1. […] American Journal of Nursing had a great story by an RN as well that I think is inspiring to share. It is so well told. I really […]

  2. Sean April 17, 2011 at 2:23 pm

    OK. What nurse hasn’t made an error? Yes, we all know that some are more severe and harmful than others – but you find me a nurse (with some experience under their belt) that hasn’t made a mistake.
    We sometimes forget that we as nurses are allowed to be human.

  3. Dawn Arevalo April 16, 2011 at 11:14 am

    As a GN. praying on the way to work was common practice as I oriented to ICU awaiting board results. I knew I was over my head yet my superior’s encouraged the immediate transition from nursing student to intensive care training. Those before me had successfully completed this same course so why not me. My career goals drove me. However, in retrospect I realize how unsafe I was and how unfair it was to the patients I was responsible for.
    Through out nursing history multiple research projects have been done in hopes of understanding what is the root cause for most nursing errors. A common factor is frequently an overwhelmed and inadequately trained nurse. The Chicago Tribune, in 2008, analyzed 3 million state and federal records creating a database quantifying the RN’s role in medical errors. reported on a study released in 2008 echoing this very sentiment. Yet there is very little support offered to nurses who feel overwhelmed with their work assignments.If nursing errors are to be reduced a system of support needs to be in place for nurses.

  4. Not Nurse Ratched April 15, 2011 at 9:55 pm

    I remember my first potentially serious error VIVIDLY. I too thought I should quit and that I was a danger to all my future patients. I wrote up the incident and no harm came to my patient, just as in the column. Luckily I had a good charge nurse who saw how shaken I was. She sent every single other nurse on that shift by my pod to tell me about the errors they had made so I could learn that we do make mistakes and that we can still be good nurses. It was a good lesson very early in my career, and I remain grateful I was surrounded by good role models that night.

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