While physicians in the United States and Canada generally support disclosing medical errors to patients, they vary widely in when and how they would tell patients an error had occurred, according to two articles in the August 14/28 issue of Archives of Internal Medicine, one of the JAMA/Archives journals.
Research has revealed that most patients want detailed information following a medical error, including an explicit statement that an error has occurred, an apology, information about why the error happened and an explanation of what will be done to prevent future errors. However, less than half of harmful errors may be disclosed to patients, according to background information in the articles. This may diminish trust in physicians and may also increase the risk that patients will file malpractice lawsuits.
Thomas H. Gallagher, M.D., University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle, and colleagues surveyed physicians in the United States and Canada to gauge their attitudes regarding the disclosure of medical errors. The 2,637 physicians had an average age of 49.2 and had been in practice for an average of 16.8 years; 1,233 were from the United States (from Washington and Missouri) and 1,404 were from Canada; about half (49.7 percent) were medical specialists, 40.3 percent were surgeons, 8.5 percent were in family practice, and 1.4 percent did not list their specialty; and 78.6 percent were male and 18.6 percent female.
In the first study, the researchers presented the physicians with one of four scenarios involving a medical error. Two of the scenarios were tailored to internal medicine specialists and two to surgeons; one of each type of error would be apparent to the patient, and the others would not be apparent to the patient if he or she was not informed. For instance, the more apparent surgical error involved a sponge left inside a patient's body and the less apparent surgical error involved an internal injury that a
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