Objectives: The purpose of this study was to develop a better understanding of how medical trainees define medical errors and what factors influence medical trainees' perceptions of medical errors.
Methods: We surveyed 423 medical students and house staff at an urban academic medical centre to learn about how they defined medical errors, their experiences with medical errors, their beliefs about when a patient should be informed of an error, and their attitudes towards medical errors with differing severity of outcomes.
Results: Trainees stated that an event could be considered an error regardless of outcome, negligence, intention or consent. Definitions did not vary according to gender or level of training. Trainees had increasing feelings of guilt and fear as the outcomes related to errors worsened. Respondents were more likely to feel guilty and angry at themselves, and be afraid of accusations of malpractice, losing their licence, damaging their reputation, or losing confidence when errors were made while working individually versus in a team setting. Female trainees were more likely than male trainees to feel guilty and angry at themselves, and were afraid of losing confidence if they made an error.
Conclusions: Trainees' perceptions and attitudes towards errors vary depending on whether they are in their clinical years, the severity of outcome, and whether the error is attributable to an individual or a team. These factors will have to be explored in greater depth if we are adequately to prepare young doctors for the errors they will inevitably make.