Original Article

Journal of General Internal Medicine

, Volume 22, Issue 7, pp 988-996

Disclosing Medical Errors to Patients: Attitudes and Practices of Physicians and Trainees

  • Lauris C. KaldjianAffiliated withDivision of General Internal Medicine, Department of Internal Medicine, 1-106 MEB, University of Iowa Carver College of MedicineProgram in Biomedical Ethics and Medical Humanities, University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine Email author 
  • , Elizabeth W. JonesAffiliated withDivision of General Internal Medicine, Department of Internal Medicine, 1-106 MEB, University of Iowa Carver College of MedicineCenter for Research in the Implementation of Innovative Strategies in Practice, Iowa City VA Medical Center
  • , Barry J. WuAffiliated withDepartment of Internal Medicine, Hospital of St. Raphael, New Haven, CT, and Yale University School of Medicine
  • , Valerie L. Forman-HoffmanAffiliated withDivision of General Internal Medicine, Department of Internal Medicine, 1-106 MEB, University of Iowa Carver College of MedicineCenter for Research in the Implementation of Innovative Strategies in Practice, Iowa City VA Medical Center
  • , Benjamin H. LeviAffiliated withDepartments of Humanities and Pediatrics, Penn State College of Medicine and Hershey Medical Center
  • , Gary E. RosenthalAffiliated withDivision of General Internal Medicine, Department of Internal Medicine, 1-106 MEB, University of Iowa Carver College of MedicineCenter for Research in the Implementation of Innovative Strategies in Practice, Iowa City VA Medical Center

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Abstract

BACKGROUND

Disclosing errors to patients is an important part of patient care, but the prevalence of disclosure, and factors affecting it, are poorly understood.

OBJECTIVE

To survey physicians and trainees about their practices and attitudes regarding error disclosure to patients.

DESIGN AND PARTICIPANTS

Survey of faculty physicians, resident physicians, and medical students in Midwest, Mid-Atlantic, and Northeast regions of the United States.

MEASUREMENTS

Actual error disclosure; hypothetical error disclosure; attitudes toward disclosure; demographic factors.

RESULTS

Responses were received from 538 participants (response rate = 77%). Almost all faculty and residents responded that they would disclose a hypothetical error resulting in minor (97%) or major (93%) harm to a patient. However, only 41% of faculty and residents had disclosed an actual minor error (resulting in prolonged treatment or discomfort), and only 5% had disclosed an actual major error (resulting in disability or death). Moreover, 19% acknowledged not disclosing an actual minor error and 4% acknowledged not disclosing an actual major error. Experience with malpractice litigation was not associated with less actual or hypothetical error disclosure. Faculty were more likely than residents and students to disclose a hypothetical error and less concerned about possible negative consequences of disclosure. Several attitudes were associated with greater likelihood of hypothetical disclosure, including the belief that disclosure is right even if it comes at a significant personal cost.

CONCLUSIONS

There appears to be a gap between physicians’ attitudes and practices regarding error disclosure. Willingness to disclose errors was associated with higher training level and a variety of patient-centered attitudes, and it was not lessened by previous exposure to malpractice litigation.

KEY WORDS

medical errors error disclosure medical ethics professionalism doctor–patient relationships malpractice litigation