Disclosing medical errors to patients: attitudes and practices of physicians and trainees

J Gen Intern Med. 2007 Jul;22(7):988-96. doi: 10.1007/s11606-007-0227-z. Epub 2007 May 1.


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

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

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

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

Results: 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.

Conclusions: 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.

Publication types

  • Multicenter Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Clinical Competence
  • Disclosure / ethics*
  • Faculty, Medical*
  • Female
  • Health Care Surveys
  • Humans
  • Internship and Residency*
  • Male
  • Malpractice
  • Medical Errors / ethics
  • Medical Errors / psychology*
  • Physician-Patient Relations / ethics*
  • Professional Practice / ethics*
  • Students, Medical*
  • United States