An experienced infectious-disease physician who often writes articles on medical topics recently addressed the subject of surgical mistakes and other medical errors, noting both a culture of nondisclosure surrounding the admission of error and the need for doctors and medical administrators to more often speak up.

Doctor Manoj Jain relates for readers the longstanding antipathy common in the medical field concerning doctors’ owning up to mistakes, a hard-to-displace reality that owes to myriad causes. One reason for physicians being generally tight-lipped about their surgical, diagnostic and other errors is that most doctors “were never taught how to disclose errors in medical school,” an environment that emphasized hierarchy and a doctor’s autonomy.

Another oft-cited cause that is often put forth to explain many doctors’ reticence in owning up to a mistake and even apologizing to a patient for it is fear of medical malpractice repercussions. In short, admission of error could equate to legal liability.

Jain questions that latter assumption, noting both recently announced national standards that encourage the reporting of errors and results from programs that have actually instituted such systems.

One program that has received a lot of attention was implemented by the University of Michigan Health System more than a decade ago.

It is hard to argue against the results it has achieved. Researchers found that, in comparing liability claims for both the six years preceding and following implementation, litigation costs dropped by more than 60 percent in the latter period.

Jain strongly encourages greater efforts and programs that will safely encourage medical facilities to get errors out in the open. Many mistakes, he says, owe to systemic problems, which can only be identified and fixed in an atmosphere of transparency.

Source: Washington Post, “Medical errors are hard for doctors to admit, but it’s wise to apologize to patients,” Manoj Jain, May 27, 2013