Home E-Weekly July 26, 2016

Should More Surgeons Say They're Sorry?

Published: July 25, 2016

National guidelines suggest surgeons should fully disclose medical errors to patients and their family members, but a new report in JAMA Surgery says many physicians fail to fully discuss the details of surgical mishaps or apologize for their mistakes.

The study's authors surveyed 62 surgeons working in 12 specialties at 3 Veterans Affairs medical centers about recent adverse events they experienced. According to the results, only 55% of the respondents say they discuss whether the adverse events were preventable or apologize to patients, and only one-third claim to have discussed how the same mistake could be avoided in the future.

Surgeons who were less likely to have open dialogues with patients about medical errors and preventative strategies were more likely to be negatively impacted by the experience, suggesting full disclosure of an error is an important step in a surgeon's ability to mentally move past the mistake. The study's findings show surgeons have difficulty discussing error prevention strategies or worry that doing so suggests blame for mistakes, according to the researchers.

"It's important to know that not all surgeons are disclosing error information, even though patients have indicated they would prefer to know," says A. Rani Elwy, PhD, the study's lead author and an associate professor of health law, policy and management at the Boston University School of Public Health. "Recognizing the association between disclosure and surgeons' well-being is also important. It suggests that open disclosure policies have many benefits, for surgeons as well as patients."

The authors say efforts may be needed to improve the training surgeons receive in discussing difficult issues with patients, including how medical errors could have been prevented, in order to promote transparent care and a healthier surgeon workforce.

Daniel Cook

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