Student essay wins Young Physician Patient Safety Award

Butler recognized by National Patient Safety Foundation

By Sandra Gray

UMass Medical School Communications

June 05, 2012
  Elizabeth Butler, SOM ’13

Transformation can occur in an instant. Elizabeth Butler, SOM ’13, captured her own moment of truth about the weight of her responsibility to keep patients safe when she wrote, “I realized that I had made a colossal mistake. I had performed a procedure on a patient without verifying her name or medical identification number, and regrettably, it was the wrong woman.”


For putting her candid reflections about that experience into writing, Butler was awarded one of six 2012 Young Physician Patient Safety Awards for her essay about this pivotal experience. In partnership with the Lucian Leape Institute at the National Patient Safety Foundation (NPSF), the Doctors Company Foundation presents the awards to recognize young physicians for their deep personal insight into the significance of patient safety work. Winning essays recount instructional patient safety events in hospital settings that resulted in personal transformation. Butler accepted the award at the NPSF Annual Congress held in Washington, DC, on May 25.

Fortunately, her patient was never in grave danger and fully recovered, but the incident was life changing for Butler. “This event sparked a personal transformation because it demonstrated that patients will trust me on the basis of my white coat and that I must always be extremely conscientious regarding patient care,” she wrote. “I always reinforce this guideline when working with other students in the hope that we can all avoid future errors similar to this one.”

After the mistake was made, the entire care team analyzed what went wrong and developed detailed guidelines to prevent such an error from occurring again. “My educators were supportive and helped me reconnect with the patient,” Butler recalled. “I was able to follow up with her on an outpatient basis and appreciate that she was recovering normally. I feel exceptionally lucky that this patient was understanding, and that this was a relatively minor error.”

Her award-winning essay is just one manifestation of Butler’s interest in writing in the medical milieu. She enjoyed a rotation at the New England Journal of Medicine where, working one-on-one with a deputy editor, she edited, reviewed and critiqued articles submitted to the prestigious professional publication. Looking ahead, she hopes to incorporate further reflective writing into her medical career. She has also participated in National Novel Writers Month, a national online project whose participants set out to write a 50,000-word novel in a single month, and is toying with the idea of doing it again.

Butler is a Worcester native and 2007 graduate of Emory University, where she majored in Spanish. She became acquainted with the Medical School long before she matriculated through her mother, Sheila Callahan Butler, MD. A pediatrician in private practice, Dr. Butler is a UMMS graduate who now serves as a clinical preceptor for medical students. The younger Butler hopes to follow in her mother’s footsteps as a pediatrician, after extending her medical school tenure to earn a master’s in public health at Harvard College and graduating from UMMS next year.

She has volunteered at Girl’s Choice of Worcester, and conducted a Senior Scholars Project on how to best educate village health workers in rural Uganda. She has also served as student leader of the Medical Interviewing in Spanish optional enrichment elective,as secretary of the UMMS chapter of the American Student Medical Association, and as a volunteer participating in the care of surgery patients at a busy urban hospital in Mexico City.

Still shaken by the error that was the basis of her award-winning essay, Butler values the experience nonetheless, saying, “It was cathartic to write about it, and it will make me a much more cautious doctor.”

Related links on UMassMedNow:
Medical students showcase Senior Scholars research
Essay on patient safety earns student award