The emotional impact of mistakes on family physicians

Arch Fam Med. 1996 Feb;5(2):71-5. doi: 10.1001/archfami.5.2.71.


Objective: To explore the emotional impact of the most memorable mistake on family physicians, the support they needed and received, and their response to a hypothetical scenario in which a colleague's decision was associated with a fatal outcome.

Setting and participants: Randomly selected members of a county chapter of a midwestern state academy of family physicians.

Design: Qualitative cross-sectional survey using in-depth interviews subject to content analysis.

Methods: I audiotaped interviews with each of the physicians in their offices. Two medical sociologists and I first independently, and then consensually, categorized the data based on the frequency with which a word or idea appeared in the text.

Results: Thirty (75 %) of the 40 physicians originally contacted participated in the study. Twenty-three (77%) of the 30 physicians admitted to making a mistake. The physicians experienced emotional adversity. Of 27 physicians, 17 (63%) needed someone to talk to, 13 (48 %) needed to review their case management, 16 (59%) needed professional reaffirmation, and eight (30%) needed personal reassurance. Having someone to talk to was the support that 12 (44%) of the 27 physicians valued most. Eighteen (67%) of 27 received this support from someone other than their peers. Although all subjects recognized their colleague's pain and need for support in the hypothetical scenario, only nine (32%) of 28 physicians would have unconditionally offered support.

Conclusion: Making mistakes unfavorably affects family physicians and creates a strong need for support. Family physicians may benefit from sharing experiences that diminish perfectionism and recognize mistakes as a natural part of practicing medicine. Further research needs to address how physicians can be encouraged toward therapeutic self-disclosure and peer support.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Decision Making*
  • Diagnostic Errors*
  • Family Practice*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Physicians / psychology
  • Social Support*