Background: How patients respond to medical errors may influence how physicians approach disclosure of medical errors, but information on patients' responses is limited. Research is needed on how the circumstances that surround a medical error affect how patients respond.
Objective: To investigate whether patients' tendency to forgive a physician following a medical error varied under different circumstances.
Study design: Cross-sectional survey.
Methods: We mailed a questionnaire to 1500 randomly selected health plan members; the response rate was 66%. Questionnaire items assessed the likelihood of forgiveness following a medical error under 12 circumstances drawn from a review of the literature.
Results: Respondents were most likely to forgive a physician if the patient failed to provide complete information (93% would or might forgive) and least likely to forgive if the error was due to efforts to keep costs down (11% would or might forgive). Most respondents would not forgive a physician when the physician was tired or distracted (68%), was incomplete in data collection (76%), lacked knowledge (78%), or failed to follow up (85%). Men were more likely to forgive than women; the most educated respondents were most likely to forgive.
Conclusions: Our findings suggest that patients are not likely to forgive a physician in circumstances in which they suspect incompetence, inattention, or a lack of caring on the part of the physician involved. A more comprehensive understanding of forgiveness and the effect of forgiveness on the physician-patient relationship following a medical error is needed.