Ebola’s arrival in the U.S. might have prompted the kind of strong action worthy of the most powerful nation on earth. Instead, it revealed bureaucratic incompetence that has left one man dead, two nurses infected, and the public walking around in fear of an epidemic. First, a Texas hospital missed what seemed like an obvious diagnosis and sent home a patient with Ebola. Then two nurses became infected, including one who flew commercially after showing symptoms. More than a month after President Obama said in a video message on stopping the disease that “we know how to do it,” the CDC was still “wrapping up final details” on guidelines that might protect U.S. healthcare workers treating patients with the virus.
As the disease takes a toll on the stock market, the airline industry and our sense of security, and as flights continue despite calls for an end to commercial air traffic between the U.S. and some African countries, politicians have launched a blame game that seems designed more to protect their seats in the mid-term elections than to protect public safety. Republicans blame the Obama administration for poor leadership, while Democrats blame Republicans for spending cuts that hurt the response. Not to be outdone, the CDC has cited a “breach in protocol” for the nurses’ infections, even while revising its guidelines, and the Texas hospital fired back in its apology letter that “we believe our procedures complied with the CDC Ebola guidelines and our staff implemented them diligently.” Compare this posturing with the response in now Ebola-free Nigeria, which prepared early and immediately declared a national public health emergency when it had its first confirmed case of Ebola.
The Ebola non-accountability would serve as a prime example of the pervasive mind-set of “my bad,” which enables people to shrug off responsibility even when harming others, except that in this case so much is at stake that it takes “my bad” to “my worst.” As I learned when researching a book tracking the “my bad” mind-set, we’ve long been seeing an uptick in mistakes made in healthcare. As many as 440,000 people die each year from preventable medical errors, according to research reported in Forbes, which notes that the statistic makes medical errors the third leading cause of death in the United States. Rarely do we even hear any expression of remorse from people who have made mistakes. Instead, we hear lawyers offering excuses and explanations.
The “my bad” phenomenon extends well beyond healthcare. You can see it in everything from casually blown business deadlines to lapses in customer service across sectors to the antics of reality TV stars and public officials.
We’ve got to get past “my bad” and start demanding greater accountability of our leaders as well as ourselves. As the Ebola response makes all too clear, when accountability dies, so can people.