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Doctors make mistakes and they should be disclosed to patients

Many Maryland residents may agree that doctors often avoid disclosing medical errors to their patients partly due to the fear of facing a medical malpractice lawsuit and partly due to their discomfort with the disclosure process. However, more and more doctors today agree that full disclosure of medical errors should be made to patients and many make this disclosure themselves.

Full disclosure of a doctor's errors includes communicating all harmful errors and ways to minimize their effect, explaining the reason for the occurrence of such errors and stating the steps that have been taken to prevent recurrence. All these disclosures should accompany the acceptance of responsibility for the error and an apology by the doctor.

Although doctors may advocate full disclosure in theory, in practice they might use carefully chosen words when providing these disclosures which make it difficult for the patient to understand the full effect of the error. Doctors are usually wary of fully disclosing medical errors because they fear admission will be used against them if they are sued for medical malpractice.

Hospitals, however, tend to follow a "deny-and-defend" policy when a medical error happens by disclosing limited information to the patient and avoiding admission of guilt. Some physicians have also received formal training in this method of medical error disclosure so they don't provide incriminating information to patients.

The most recent trend, however, is to adopt the "communication-and-response" model which involves full disclosure of a medical error, a quick apology and financial compensation. This is a patient-centric proactive approach which has actually led to fewer filings of medical malpractice lawsuits against errant doctors and hospitals.

However, implementation of such a process is somewhat complex considering the conflicting interests of the doctors and patients involved. A disclosure process should be implemented with a pragmatic and sensitive approach to make it more effective.

Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, "Error Disclosure," August 2014

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