Physician Disclosure of Medical Errors

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Medical Errors

Disclosing medical errors made by physicians is extremely important yet often extremely difficult. Two University of Iowa studies examine why this is the case and how increased understanding might help patients, doctors and health care systems overall.

One study involved a review of more than 300 previously published papers on factors that hinder or help doctors' disclosure of mistakes. Those findings appear in the April 2006 issue of the Joint Commission Journal on Quality and Patient Safety. The second study suggested a new framework for understanding these factors, based on the literature review and new research involving five focus groups. Those findings appeared online May 31 in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

"It's a challenge to understand the diversity of reasons, both positive and negative, that affect a physician's willingness to disclose his or her own errors," said Lauris Kaldjian, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of internal medicine in the UI Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine and director of the college's Program in Biomedical Ethics and Medical Humanities.

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"The physician's focus should always be on the patient, but at the moment of a medical error, we also must consider the professional who was involved in that error," Kaldjian said. "Often an error is not directly an individual person's fault, but a system-based problem. Yet disclosing errors can be a very individual issue because sometimes only one person knows about it and, as a result, disclosure becomes an individual responsibility."

Kaldjian said disclosing medical errors can contribute to three main goals of quality health care: patients deserve to know when things do not go the way they were expected, hospitals and clinics need to be aware of mistakes in order to improve patient safety, and sharing one's own medical mistake with colleagues can help educate other doctors so that they do not make the same error.

"Typically, these three goals are handled separately, and I believe this is a weakness in the way errors are addressed," Kaldjian said. "A better understanding of what helps or hinders error disclosure could result in ways to address these three goals together as part of one unified process."

The literature review revealed 91 factors involved in physician error disclosure, and the focus group research added an additional 27 factors.

"One comment from the focus groups clearly showed how emotionally traumatic errors are for physicians

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