When a doctor makes an error in treatment that is apparent to the patient, most doctors (81 percent) in a recent survey said they would disclose the error to the patient. But when presented with an error that was less apparent, only 50 percent thought it was worth mentioning.
One example the study authors gave was a blood chemistry reading that had been overlooked. If it had been noticed, a serious complication could have been prevented. The study was published on Aug. 14 in The Archives of Internal Medicine.
A research team at the University of Washington School of Medicine surveyed 2,637 doctors. Among those surveyed, 49.7 percent were medical specialists, 40.3 percent were surgeons, and 8.5 percent were family doctors.
Doctors had a spectrum of opinions about how much information to disclose and how specific that information should be. Overall, 56 percent of doctors would mention the problem, but only 42 percent would disclose that the problem had been caused by an error. A doctor’s specialty also affected how willing the doctor was to disclose an error, with surgeons leading the way in their willingness to disclose errors to patients. Surgeons, however, were also more likely to disclose less information about a problem, including whether it was a medical error or not.
The survey also revealed that:
- 64 percent of doctors agreed that errors were a serious problem.
- 98 percent supported disclosing serious errors to patients, and 78 percent supported disclosing minor errors.
- 66 percent agreed that disclosing a serious error reduces malpractice risk.
- 58 percent had disclosed an error to a patient and 85 percent of those were satisfied with the disclosure.
- Doctors’ estimates of how likely they were to be sued didn’t affect whether they believed that patients should be told about medical errors.
“The medical profession should consider whether the culture of medicine itself represents a more important barrier than the malpractice environment to the disclosure of harmful medical errors,” the authors concluded.
Doctors worry about telling patients too much, or confusing them with complex information that is difficult to explain.