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Risk Managers, Physicians, and Disclosure of Harmful Medical Errors

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Background: Physicians are encouraged to disclose medical errors to patients, which often requires close collaboration between physicians and risk managers.

Methods: An anonymous national survey of 2,988 healthcare facility–based risk managers was conducted between November 2004 and March 2005, and results were compared with those of a previous survey (conducted between July 2003 and March 2004) of 1,311 medical physicians in Washington and Missouri. Both surveys included an error-disclosure scenario for an obvious and a less obvious error with scripted response options.

Results: More risk managers than physicians were aware that an error-reporting system was present at their hospital (81% versus 39%, p < .001) and believed that mechanisms to inform physicians about errors in their hospital were adequate (51% versus 17%, p < .001). More risk managers than physicians strongly agreed that serious errors should be disclosed to patients (70% versus 49%, p < .001). Across both error scenario, risk managers were more likely than physicians to definitely recommend that the error be disclosed (76% versus 50%, p < .001) and to provide full details about how the error would be prevented in the future (62% versus 51%, p < .001). However, physicians were more likely than risk managers to provide a full apology recognizing the harm caused by the error (39% versus 21%, p < .001).

Conclusions: Risk managers have more favorable attitudes about disclosing errors to patients compared with physicians but are less supportive of providing a full apology. These differences may create conflicts between risk managers and physicians regarding disclosure. Health care institutions should promote greater collaboration between these two key participants in disclosure conversations.

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: March 1, 2010

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  • Published monthly, The Joint Commission Journal on Quality and Patient Safety is a peer-reviewed publication dedicated to providing health professionals with the information they need to promote the quality and safety of health care. The Joint Commission Journal on Quality and Patient Safety invites original manuscripts on the development, adaptation, and/or implementation of innovative thinking, strategies, and practices in improving quality and safety in health care. Case studies, program or project reports, reports of new methodologies or new applications of methodologies, research studies on the effectiveness of improvement interventions, and commentaries on issues and practices are all considered.

    David W. Baker, MD, MPH, FACP, executive vice president for the Division of Healthcare Quality Evaluation at The Joint Commission, is the inaugural editor-in-chief of The Joint Commission Journal on Quality and Patient Safety.

    Also known as Joint Commission Journal on Quality Improvement and Joint Commission Journal on Quality and Safety
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