Journal of General Internal Medicine

, Volume 22, Issue 6, pp 755–761 | Cite as

The Many Faces of Error Disclosure: A Common Set of Elements and a Definition

  • Stephanie P. FeinEmail author
  • Lee H. Hilborne
  • Eugene M. Spiritus
  • Gregory B. Seymann
  • Craig R. Keenan
  • Kaveh G. Shojania
  • Marjorie Kagawa-Singer
  • Neil S. Wenger
Original Article



Patients want to know when errors happen in their care. Professional associations, ethicists, and patient safety experts endorse disclosure of medical error to patients. Surveys of physicians show that they believe harmful errors should be disclosed to patients, yet errors are often not disclosed.


To understand the discrepancy between patients’ expectations and physicians’ behavior concerning error disclosure.

Design, Setting, and Participants

We conducted focus groups to determine what constitutes disclosure of medical error. Twenty focus groups, 4 at each of 5 academic centers, included 204 hospital administrators, physicians, residents, and nurses.


Qualitative analysis of the focus group transcripts with attention to examples of error disclosure by clinicians and hospital administrators.


Clinicians and administrators considered various forms of communication about errors to be error disclosure. Six elements of disclosure identified from focus group transcripts characterized disclosures ranging from Full disclosure (including admission of a mistake, discussion of the error, and a link from the error to harm) to Partial disclosures, which included deferral, misleading statements, and inadequate information to “connect the dots.” Descriptions involving nondisclosure of harmful errors were uncommon.


Error disclosure may mean different things to clinicians than it does to patients. The various forms of communication deemed error disclosure by clinicians may explain the discrepancy between error disclosure beliefs and behaviors. We suggest a definition of error disclosure to inform practical policies and interventions.


error disclosure ethics medical mistakes patient/doctor communication 



This project was supported by a grant from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ HS11512-02, Lee Hilborne, PI). Stephanie Fein was supported by a National Research Service Award training grant (PE-19001). The authors recognize and appreciate the technical assistance of Tuyen Nguyen and Victor Gonzalez. Portions of this manuscript were presented at the annual meeting for the Society of General Internal Medicine on May 15, 2004 in Chicago, Illinois.

Conflict of Interest Statement

None disclosed.


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Copyright information

© Society of General Internal Medicine 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  • Stephanie P. Fein
    • 1
    Email author
  • Lee H. Hilborne
    • 2
  • Eugene M. Spiritus
    • 3
  • Gregory B. Seymann
    • 4
  • Craig R. Keenan
    • 5
  • Kaveh G. Shojania
    • 6
  • Marjorie Kagawa-Singer
    • 7
  • Neil S. Wenger
    • 1
    • 8
  1. 1.Division of General Internal Medicine and Health Services ResearchDavid Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California at Los AngelesLos AngelesUSA
  2. 2.Department of Pathology and Center for Patient SafetyDavid Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California at Los AngelesLos AngelesUSA
  3. 3.Department of MedicineUniversity of California at IrvineIrvineUSA
  4. 4.Department of MedicineUniversity of California at San DiegoSan DiegoUSA
  5. 5.Department of MedicineUniversity of California at DavisDavisUSA
  6. 6.Ottawa Health Research InstituteUniversity of OttawaOttawaCanada
  7. 7.Department of Community Health SciencesUCLA School of Public HealthLos AngelesUSA
  8. 8.UCLA Healthcare Ethics CenterLos AngelesUSA

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