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Most patients want doctors to disclose severe medical errors

Doctors who make mistakes often hesitate confessing to patients, fearing lawsuits or other repercussions. However, if doctors are candid about their missteps, patients are 35 percent less likely to sue than if they'd been left in the dark, reveals a new study. Patients' sex, age, race, education level, or insurance status had no bearing on whether they wanted to be informed of an error.

Researchers presented error scenarios to 394 patients seen in an emergency department, asking them to assess the severity of the mistake. They then quizzed patients about their preferences when it came to disclosing errors. The more severe the error, the more likely patients were to desire its disclosure. For example, in 908 responses that rated error scenarios, patients determined 58 percent of errors were severe and wanted disclosure for 98 percent of them. For 35 percent of responses, patients were less likely to obtain legal counsel if their doctor told them of the error. This finding suggests that disclosing an error may not increase the likelihood of a lawsuit. (Go to a related article by Kathleen M. Mazor, Ed.D., in the June 2004 Research Activities.) For 45 percent of the scenarios, patients wanted the errors reported to a disciplinary body. Patients older than 55 (40 percent) were less inclined to inform a disciplinary body of an error when compared with patients aged 21 to 30 (54 percent).

Patients who did not have a high school diploma were more likely to want to report the error to a disciplinary body (60 percent) than high school (44 percent) or college (43 percent) graduates. The authors suggest that the more education a patient has, the more he or she may identify with a doctor who committed an error. Further, they suggest that the more social distance a patient has from a provider, the more the patient may feel the doctor should be held accountable. This study was funded in part by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (HS00059).

See "Patient race/ethnicity, age, gender and education are not related to preference for or response to disclosure," by Cherri Hobgood, M.D., Joshua H. Tamayo-Sarver, Ph.D., and Bryan J. Weiner, Ph.D., in Quality and Safety in Health Care 17(1), pp. 65-70, 2008.

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