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Error Disclosure
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Background

Many patients harmed by a medical error never learn of the error. Physicians have traditionally shied away from discussing errors with patients, in part due to fear of precipitating a malpractice lawsuit, but also due to embarrassment and discomfort with the disclosure process. However, attitudes have changed in recent years—most physicians in a 2006 survey had disclosed a serious error to a patient and agreed that such disclosure was warranted.

Surveys have helped to define the components of disclosure that matter most to patients. These include:

  • Disclosure of all harmful errors
  • An explanation as to why the error occurred
  • How the error's effects will be minimized
  • Steps the physician (and organization) will take to prevent recurrences

"Full disclosure" of an error incorporates these components as well as acknowledgement of responsibility and an apology by the physician. However, there may be a disconnect between physicians' views of ideal practice and what actually happens. For example, most physicians agree that errors should be fully disclosed to patients, but in practice many "choose their words carefully" by failing to clearly explain the error and its effects on the patient's health.

What physicians would disclose about error. 56% would mention the adverse event but not the error (partial disclosure); 42% would make an explicit statement that an error occurred (full disclosure); 3% would make no reference to the adverse event or error (no disclosure).

Source: Gallagher TH, Garbutt JM, Waterman AD, et al. Choosing your words carefully: how physicians would disclose harmful medical errors to patients. Arch Intern Med. 2006;166:1585-1593. [go to PubMed]

Accomplishing Full Disclosure

Increasing the amount and quality of error disclosure will require addressing physician discomfort with disclosure and fear of lawsuits. Although it was long assumed that disclosure of errors increased the chances of being sued, an oft-cited study showed that patients are less likely to consider filing suit if physicians apologize and fully disclose errors. The impact of this finding, or disclosure policies in general, on malpractice lawsuits is not clear, although one study did find fewer lawsuits and lower legal costs at an institution that had implemented a full disclosure and compensation policy. A clinician's disclosure of an error may be admissible in a malpractice lawsuit. According to a 2008 survey, only eight US states explicitly prohibited "admissions of fault" from being used as evidence at trial, although the majority of states exclude "expressions of sympathy" from being admissible evidence.

Few physicians have received formal training in how to discuss errors with patients, and given that the circumstances surrounding an error are invariably complex, physicians may be unclear as to how much information should be disclosed and how to explain the error to the patient. Recent guidelines have been formulated in an effort to assist physicians with this process.

Current Context

Disclosure of errors and adverse events is now endorsed by a broad array of organizations. Since 2001, the Joint Commission has required disclosure of unanticipated outcomes of care. In 2006, the National Quality Forum endorsed full disclosure of "serious unanticipated outcomes" as one of its 30 "safe practices" for health care. The disclosure safe practice includes standards for practitioners regarding the key components of disclosure. It also calls for health care organizations to create an environment conducive to disclosure by integrating risk management and patient safety activities and providing training and support for physicians.

As of April 2008, seven states (Nevada, Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Vermont, and California) mandate disclosure of unanticipated outcomes, and 36 states have enacted laws that preclude some or all information contained in a practitioner's apology from being used in a malpractice lawsuit.

 
What's New in Error Disclosure on AHRQ PSNet
STUDY
Institutional disclosure: promise and problems.
Wolk SW, Sine DM, Paull DE. J Healthc Risk Manag. 2014;33:24-32.
STUDY
Rapid learning of adverse medical event disclosure and apology.
Raemer DB, Locke S, Walzer TB, Gardner R, Baer L, Simon R. J Patient Saf. 2014 Feb 27; [Epub ahead of print].
BOOK/REPORT
Building a Culture of Candour: a Review of the Threshold for the Duty of Candour and of the Incentives for Care Organisations to Be Candid.
Dalton D, Williams N. London, UK: The Royal College of Surgeons of England; March 2014.
FACT SHEET/FAQS
Saying Sorry.
London, England: NHS Litigation Authority; 2013.
NEWSPAPER/MAGAZINE ARTICLE
Mistakes were made.
Weber DO. Hosp Health Networks Daily. February 25, 2014.
REVIEW
Understanding the barriers to physician error reporting and disclosure: a systemic approach to a systemic problem.
Perez B, Knych SA, Weaver SJ, et al. J Patient Saf. 2014;10:45-51.
MULTI-USE WEBSITE
Massachusetts Alliance for Communication and Resolution Following Medical Injury.
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Massachusetts Medical Society.
 
Editor's Picks for Error Disclosure
From AHRQ WebM&M
Medication Reconciliation Pitfalls.
Robert J. Weber, PharmD, MS. AHRQ WebM&M [serial online]. February 2010
Disclosure of Medical Error.
Allen Kachalia, MD, JD. AHRQ WebM&M [serial online]. January 2009
In Conversation with…Thomas H. Gallagher, MD.
AHRQ WebM&M [serial online]. January 2009
Removing Insult from Injury—Disclosing Adverse Events.
Albert W. Wu, MD, MPH. AHRQ WebM&M [serial online]. Febuary 2006
The Wrong Shot: Error Disclosure.
Thomas H. Gallagher, MD; Wendy Levinson, MD. AHRQ WebM&M [serial online]. June 2004
 
From AHRQ PSNet
SPECIAL OR THEME ISSUE
Disclosure of Unanticipated Outcomes.
ECRI Institute. Healthcare Risk Control. 2008;(suppl A):1-21.
JOURNAL ARTICLE
The many faces of error disclosure: a common set of elements and a definition. Classic icon
Fein SP, Hilborne LH, Spiritus EM, et al. J Gen Intern Med. 2007;22:755-761.
Patients' and physicians' attitudes regarding the disclosure of medical errors. Classic icon
Gallagher TH, Waterman AD, Ebers AG, Fraser VJ, Levinson W. JAMA. 2003;289:1001-1007.
Choosing your words carefully: how physicians would disclose harmful medical errors to patients. Classic icon
Gallagher TH, Garbutt JM, Waterman AD, et al. Arch Intern Med. 2006;166:1585-1593.
To tell the truth: ethical and practical issues in disclosing medical mistakes to patients. Classic icon
Wu AW, Cavanaugh TA, McPhee SJ, Lo B, Micco GP. J Gen Intern Med. 1997;12:770-775.
Does full disclosure of medical errors affect malpractice liability? The jury is still out. Classic icon
Kachalia A, Shojania KG, Hofer TP, Piotrowski M, Saint S. Jt Comm J Qual Saf. 2003;29:503-511.
Narrative review: do state laws make it easier to say "I'm sorry?"
McDonnell WM, Guenther E. Ann Intern Med. 2008;149:811-815.
Liability claims and costs before and after implementation of a medical error disclosure program. Classic icon
Kachalia A, Kaufman SR, Boothman R, et al. Ann Intern Med. 2010;153:213-221.
The disclosure dilemma—large-scale adverse events.
Dudzinski DM, Hébert PC, Foglia MB, Gallagher TH. N Engl J Med. 2010;363:978-986.
How does routine disclosure of medical error affect patients' propensity to sue and their assessment of provider quality?: Evidence from survey data. Classic icon
Helmchen LA, Richards MR, McDonald TB. Med Care. 2010;48:955-961.
Patients' and family members' views on how clinicians enact and how they should enact incident disclosure: the "100 patient stories" qualitative study.
Iedema R, Allen S, Britton K, et al. BMJ. 2011;343:d4423.
BOOK/REPORT
Serious Reportable Events in Healthcare—2011 Update. Classic icon
Washington, DC: National Quality Forum; 2011. ISBN: 9780982842188.
Risk Management Pearls on Disclosure of Adverse Events.
Amori G. Chicago, IL: American Society for Healthcare Risk Management; 2006.
AUDIOVISUAL
When Things Go Wrong: Voices of Patients and Families.
Cambridge, MA: CRICO/RMF; 2006.
WEB RESOURCE
Sorry Works!
The Sorry Works! Coalition, PO Box 531, Glen Carbon, IL 62034.
Being open: communicating patient safety incidents with patients and their carers.
National Patient Safety Agency.  
TOOLS/TOOLKIT
Apologies for Medical Errors.
American College of Physician Executives.
NEWSPAPER/MAGAZINE ARTICLE
When doctors admit their mistakes.
Chen PW. New York Times. August 19, 2010.
 
Last Updated: October 2012