Communicating with patients about medical errors: a review of the literature

Arch Intern Med. 2004 Aug 9-23;164(15):1690-7. doi: 10.1001/archinte.164.15.1690.


Background: Ethical and professional guidelines recommend disclosure of medical errors to patients. The objective of this study was to review the empirical literature on disclosure of medical errors with respect to (1) the decision to disclose, (2) the process of informing the patient and family, and (3) the consequences of disclosure or nondisclosure.

Methods: We searched 4 electronic databases (MEDLINE, CINAHL, PsycINFO, and Social Sciences Citations Index) and the reference lists of relevant articles for English-language studies on disclosure of medical errors. From more than 800 titles reviewed, we identified 17 articles reporting original empirical data on disclosure of medical errors to patients and families. We examined methods and results of the articles and extracted study designs, data collection procedures, populations sampled, response rates, and definitions of error.

Results: Available research findings suggest that patients and the public support disclosure. Physicians also indicate support for disclosure, but often do not disclose. We found insufficient empirical evidence to support conclusions about the disclosure process or its consequences.

Conclusions: Empirical research on disclosure of medical errors to patients and families has been limited, and studies have focused primarily on the decision stage of disclosure. Fewer have considered the disclosure process, the consequences of disclosure, or the relationship between the two. Additional research is needed to understand how disclosure decisions are made, to provide guidance to physicians on the process, and to help all involved anticipate the consequences of disclosure.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Attitude to Health
  • Communication
  • Decision Making*
  • Humans
  • Medical Errors*
  • Physician-Patient Relations*
  • Truth Disclosure*