When a physician makes a harmful mistake it is very clear that a physician should tell the patient. However, if the mistake was minor and harmless is it acceptable for the physician to cover up the mistake or avoid revealing it? Of the physicians who answered this question, almost two thirds felt very strongly about maintaining honesty with patients at all costs. Others believed that telling patients about non-harmful oversights would lead to unnecessary distress and it was okay not to reveal the mistake. A third group said it depended on the situation.
Some physicians felt there was a difference between “covering up” and “not revealing” a harmless mistake. Physicians unanimously felt that a cover up of a mistake was wrong without justification. Some physicians felt that not revealing a harmless mistake was okay provided the circumstances justified it. They felt that “covering up” was an active means of trying to hide what was done while “not revealing” the mistake was more passive and therefore the physician was not trying to hide the mistake.
Additionally, not all mistakes are the same. There are errors that harm patients and there are inconsequential errors that are caught even before reaching the patient. Errors such as documentation slip-ups were felt to be unnecessary to reveal, especially if it was corrected immediately. Other errors such as prescription or treatment orders that were incorrect but were corrected before reaching the patient were the types of mistakes that physicians felt were not necessary to reveal to the patient. However if this type of mistake reaches the patient, even if it does not cause harm, then some doctors felt that they should disclose the mistake because the patient actually received treatment.
Many respondents felt that unnecessary disclosure of these non-harmful mistakes would increase the risk of legal action taken against the physician. Others felt that by admitting the mistakes there will be increased trust between the physician and the patient thereby lowering the risk that the patient will bring a medical malpractice suit.
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