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Would Your PCP Disclose a Medical Error?

Many primary-care physicians would not inform their patients when a potentially harmful medical error occurs, according to a new study. The results are concerning, particularly given that failing to fully disclose what happened can often make a bad situation worse.

Researchers from Georgia State University surveyed 333 primary care physicians from three integrated healthcare delivery systems in Washington, Massachusetts, and Georgia. The responding physicians were asked to evaluate two hypothetical cases: a delayed diagnosis of breast cancer; and a care coordination breakdown that caused a delayed response to patient symptoms.

The results, which were published in the journal BMJ Quality and Safety, revealed that most of the respondents would not fully disclose a harmful medical error in either case. In fact, the majority of doctors stated that apologies, explanations, and information about the cause of the medical mistake would be limited or nonexistent.

When asked what information they would disclose, 77 percent of physicians for the delayed diagnosis case and 58 percent of physicians for the care coordination breakdown case would offer either no information or make vague references to miscommunications. In both situations, more than half would not volunteer an apology or would offer only a vague expression of regret.

"The intent to disclose was not as frequent as we thought it might be," said Douglas Roblin, PhD, professor in the division of health management and policy in the School of Public Health at Georgia State University and researcher at the Center for Clinical and Outcomes Research at Kaiser Permanente Georgia. "The two vignettes gave pretty consistent findings. The majority would not fully disclose, and we were hoping for full disclosure because that is the ethical expectation."

As highlighted by the researchers, full disclosure of harmful medical errors to patients has been the standard for U.S. doctors for almost a decade. However, as the study reveals, policy and practice can differ significantly, often to the detriment of patients.

If you or someone you care about has suffered serious harm due to a medical mistake, you may be entitled to compensation. For more information, please contact a San Diego medical malpractice attorney at the Law Offices of Robert Vaage for a free consultation.