A Third Of Doctors Say They Shouldn't Disclose Medical Errors To Patients

March 20, 2012

According to a recent survey, some doctors have a hard time telling their patients the truth. One-third of doctors think they should not disclose serious medical errors to their patients. Only two-thirds of doctors say they should disclose these mistakes to their patients. As a Chicago medical malpractice lawyer, this study is hardly surprising and, in fact, only tells part of the story.

An estimated 100,000 deaths occur every year from medical errors. A medical error is a preventable medical mistake that adversely impacts a patient. When a medical malpractice lawsuit is filed, the ultimate test is whether the doctor deviated from the "standard of care." In most jurisdictions, the standard of care is what a reasonable doctor would have done under the same or similar circumstances.

In addition to not disclosing medical mistakes to patients, the recent study reveals that many doctors are also reluctant to disclose other important matters to their patients. For example, 55 percent of doctors admit they sometimes put a positive spin on negative facts. This practice contradicts their profession's widely endorsed standards of openness and honesty. Further, 35 percent of doctors feel it is not important to disclose to their patients any financial interest they have with a drug or device company. These doctors fail to disclose this potential conflict of interest even though a new disclosure law on this conflict goes into effect next year.

The findings of this important survey first appeared in the February 2012 issue of Health Affairs. According to lead author Dr. Lisa Lizzoni of Harvard Medical School, these findings do not reveal a "patient centered" health model which puts patient needs first. Dr. Lizzoni's survey consisted of 1,891 doctors nationwide in 2009. The purpose of the study was to determine if doctors followed the standards endorsed by more than 100 professional groups worldwide in the Charter On Medical Professionalism. This Charter urges doctors to be open and honest with their patients, which includes disclosing medical errors to their patients promptly.

Although the survey reports on what doctors say they should do, it does not directly answer what doctors actually do when they know a serious medical error has occurred. From personal experience as a medical malpractice lawyer, doctors very rarely admit to a patient when they make a medical mistake. If a medical malpractice lawsuit is filed against the doctor, most malpractice lawyers will say the likelihood of the doctor admitting a medical error is less than 1 percent. Even when operating on the wrong body part, some doctors have denied responsibility blaming others for the mistake. Why many doctors are so reluctant to admit serious medical errors to patients is beyond the scope of this article. However, the short answer is there are deep internal and external motivations that explain this behavior.

New Haven Independent, Doctors Often Put Positive Spin On Patient Prognosis, February 8, 2012.

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