Background: Competent physicians occasionally make critical errors in patient care that can lead to long-lasting remorse and guilt. The perceived causes of self-admitted physician errors have not been previously explored.
Methods: Fifty-three family physicians were interviewed in depth and asked to describe their most memorable errors and the perceived causes. The authors analyzed transcripts of the audiotaped interviews to determine the frequencies of the different causes. Errors were classified according to four general categories.
Results: Family physicians collectively reported a mean of 8 different causes for each case in which an error was made (range, 1 to 16). In 47% of the cases, the patient died following the error, whereas in 26% of the cases, there was no adverse outcome. Only 4 of the 53 errors led to malpractice suits, and none were addressed by peer review organizations. Seven (10%) of the 70 physicians who were invited to participate could not recall having made any errors. Family physicians attributed their most memorable errors to 34 different causes, which fit into the following categories: physician stressors (eg, bing hurried or distracted), process-of-care factors (eg, premature closure of the diagnostic process), patient-related factors (eg, misleading normal findings), and physician characteristics (eg, lack of knowledge).
Conclusions: Family physicians attribute their memorable errors to a wide variety of causes, but most commonly to hurry, distraction, lack of knowledge, premature closure of the diagnostic process, and inadequately aggressive patient management. Physicians who understand common causes of errors may be better prepared to prevent them.