By Lawrence Schlachter
If you become the victim of a medical error, should you trust your doctor to be forthright about his or her role in the mistake? That could be a bad idea. An alarming new study says that most doctors would try to obscure their role in the mistake, and most wouldn’t even apologize.
The study, conducted by a national team of researchers, posed two hypothetical scenarios involving medical error to more than 300 primary care physicians and asked how they would react. The first scenario involved a delayed diagnosis of breast cancer; the second involved a delayed response to a patient’s symptoms due to a breakdown in the coordination of the patient’s care. Most (more than 70 percent) of the physicians surveyed said they would provide “only a limited or no apology, limited or no explanation, and limited or no information about the cause.” The report was published last fall in the journal BMJ Quality and Safety.
The researchers noted that the strongest predictors of disclosure were “perceived personal responsibility, perceived seriousness of the event and perceived value of patient-centered communication.” In other words, doctors decide whether a mistake is a big enough deal to reveal to their injured patients.
In reality, the factor that most influences doctors to hide or disclose medical errors should be clear to anyone who has spent much time in the profession: The culture of medicine frowns on admitting mistakes, usually on the pretense of fear of malpractice lawsuits.
But what’s really at risk are doctors’ egos and the preservation of a system that lets physicians avoid accountability by ignoring problems or shifting blame to “the system” or any culprit other than themselves.
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