Are Patients Always Told About Serious Medical Errors?

EmergencyPatients place great trust in their doctors and often entrust doctors with their lives. In the most recent Gallup poll regarding public trust in professionals, 70 percent of respondents rated medical doctors as having high or very high honesty and ethical standards. Patients feel justified in trusting their doctor because the doctor is the one who will sit with you and help you solve your problems. Many patients feel that doctors put the patient’s needs ahead of their own.

With this in mind, it was very surprising to read about the research presented in the Health Affairs journal concerning physician openness and honesty with patients. This survey examined how closely doctors follow the principles of The Charter on Medical Professionalism (“The Charter”). Over 100 professional organizations back The Charter, including the US Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education. The Charter itself insists on openness and honesty between doctors and patients.

Essentially, the study asked how sincerely and closely did the doctors follow The Charter’s guidelines when communicating with patients. The results of the study were generally promising. For example, nearly all physicians completely agreed that doctors should fully inform patients about the risks and benefits of the suggested treatment. Most doctors agreed that unauthorized persons should never receive confidential information about patients.

However, there were troubling results as well. Approximately 33 percent of the doctors did not agree that they should disclose serious medical errors to patients. Approximately 20 percent of the physicians did not agree that doctors should never lie to a patient. And over 10 percent of the doctors have lied to their patients in the previous year.

The problem of course is clear. Some patients are not receiving full and accurate information from their doctors. Significantly, a large minority of patients are not being told of serious medical mistakes made by their doctors. Not only does this question the amount of trust that patients should afford their doctors, but it goes to the curative options available for future problems.

In our opinion, reporting medical errors and analyzing the mistakes allows for appropriate remedial measures to be taken to prevent these mistakes in the future, thereby protecting future patients. Additionally, patients who are aware of the medical mistakes are more protected as well. The Charter agrees with us, in that it acknowledges that medical errors occur, and that the best course of conduct when a patient is injured is to promptly inform that patient. Failure to promptly inform can seriously compromise societal trust in the medical profession. Moreover, The Charter acknowledges that it is important to appropriately compensate injured patients.

This failure of the doctors to communicate medical mistakes to patients has an effect on whether the patients can report medical mistakes. Patients may very well have suffered an injury and may never be appropriately compensated for such injury because they are not aware that the injury was avoidable. In fact, many patients never report medical errors.

The problem with not reporting medical malpractice, of course, is that there is no investigation to determine the reasons for the medical mistakes. More importantly, there is no effort to determine how doctors will prevent the same mistake from occurring in the future. So, do not be afraid to ask questions of your doctors. You have a right to know if your injury was caused by a medical mistake. We have helped many patients and their families get the real story of how their injuries happened.

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