Background: Calls are increasing for physicians to disclose harmful medical errors to patients, but little is known about how physicians perform this challenging task. For surgeons, communication about errors is particularly important since surgical errors can have devastating consequences. Our objective was to explore how surgeons disclose medical errors using standardized patients.
Methods: Thirty academic surgeons participated in the study. Each surgeon discussed 2 of 3 error scenarios (wrong-side lumpectomy, retained surgical sponge, and hyperkalemia-induced arrhythmia) with standardized patients, yielding a total of 60 encounters. Each encounter was scored by using a scale developed to rate 5 communication elements of effective error disclosure. Half of the encounters took place face-to-face; the remainder occurred by videoconference.
Results: Surgeons were rated highest on their ability to explain the medical facts about the error (mean scores for the 3 scenarios ranged from 3.93 to 4.20; maximum possible score, 5). Surgeons used the word error or mistake in only 57% of disclosure conversations, took responsibility for the error in 65% of encounters, and offered a verbal apology in 47%. Surgeons acknowledged or validated patients' emotions in 55% of scenarios. Eight percent discussed how similar errors would be prevented, and 20% offered a second opinion or transfer of care to another surgeon.
Conclusions: The patient safety movement calls for disclosure of medical errors, but significant gaps exist between how surgeons disclose errors and patient preferences. Programs should be developed to teach surgeons how to communicate more effectively with patients about errors.