Disclosing harmful errors to patients is recommended, but appears to be uncommon. Understanding how trainees disclose errors and how those practices evolve during training could help educators design programs to address this gap.
To determine how trainees would disclose medical errors.
A survey of 758 trainees (488 students and 270 residents) in internal medicine at two academic medical centers. Surveys depicted one of two harmful error scenarios that varied by how apparent the error would be to the patient. We measured attitudes and disclosure content using scripted responses.
Trainees reported their intent to disclose the error as “definitely” (43%) “probably” (47%) “only if asked by patient” (9%), and “definitely not” (1%). Trainees were more likely to disclose obvious errors in comparison with ones patients were unlikely to recognize (55% vs. 30%, P<0.01). Respondents varied widely in what information they would disclose. Fifty percent of trainees chose statements explicitly stating an error occurred rather than only an adverse event. Regarding apologies, trainees were split between a general expression of regret (52%) and an explicit apology (46%). Respondents at higher levels of training were less likely to use explicit apologies (Trend P<0.01). Prior disclosure training was associated with increased willingness to disclose errors (OR 1.40, P=0.03).
Trainees may not be prepared to disclose medical errors to patients, and worrisome trends in trainee apology practices were observed across levels of training. Medical educators should intensify efforts to enhance trainees’ skills at meeting patients’ expectations for open disclosure of harmful medical errors.