Journal of General Internal Medicine

, Volume 22, Issue 7, pp 988–996 | Cite as

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

  • Lauris C. KaldjianEmail author
  • Elizabeth W. Jones
  • Barry J. Wu
  • Valerie L. Forman-Hoffman
  • Benjamin H. Levi
  • Gary E. Rosenthal
Original Article



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


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


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


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


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.


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.


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



Preliminary and partial data from this study were presented at the Society of General Internal Medicine’s 29th Annual Meeting in Los Angeles and have been published as an abstract [Journal of General Internal Medicine 2006;21(S4):36]. This study was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Generalist Physician Faculty Scholars Program, through a grant to Dr. Kaldjian (grant # 45446). The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Conflicts of Interest

None disclosed.


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Copyright information

© Society of General Internal Medicine 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  • Lauris C. Kaldjian
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  • Elizabeth W. Jones
    • 1
    • 3
  • Barry J. Wu
    • 4
  • Valerie L. Forman-Hoffman
    • 1
    • 3
  • Benjamin H. Levi
    • 5
  • Gary E. Rosenthal
    • 1
    • 3
  1. 1.Division of General Internal Medicine, Department of Internal Medicine, 1-106 MEBUniversity of Iowa Carver College of MedicineIowa CityUSA
  2. 2.Program in Biomedical Ethics and Medical HumanitiesUniversity of Iowa Carver College of MedicineIowa CityUSA
  3. 3.Center for Research in the Implementation of Innovative Strategies in PracticeIowa City VA Medical CenterIowa CityUSA
  4. 4.Department of Internal Medicine, Hospital of St. RaphaelNew Haven, CT, and Yale University School of MedicineNew HavenUSA
  5. 5.Departments of Humanities and PediatricsPenn State College of Medicine and Hershey Medical CenterHersheyUSA

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