According to a British Medical Journal analysis, medical errors occur quite frequently, annually killing upward of 250,000 people as the third leading cause of death in the United States. It is a physician’s civic duty to inform patients of conditions that may be due to medical errors, which the AMA defines as “an unintended act or omission or a flawed system or plan that harms or has the potential to harm a patient.”

According to the AMA, physicians should disclose their errors in a compassionate, concerned manner, providing an explanation of what occurred and helping patients to make informed decisions on how they would like to proceed. Furthermore, they should explain how this error will serve as a learning experience going forward.

If a physician does not want to disclose their own error, the onus may fall upon colleagues. Although addressing a colleague’s mistakes could cause interpersonal tension, resulting in an uncomfortable working environment, this result should never outweigh the erring physician’s ethical responsibility of disclosure. The ACP suggests that, when confronting a colleague regarding their mistake, physicians should consider elements like timing, mitigation, and legal implications.

Physicians Have an Ethical Responsibility to Speak the Truth

In terms of timing, physicians should react based on both the severity of the patient’s condition and the error that took place. Mitigation involves uncovering which systems led to the failure, along with brainstorming ways to improve these systems. The AMA urges physicians to bear in mind that they have an ethical responsibility to speak the truth, despite any resulting legal action toward either the erring physician or their colleagues.

According to Columbia University’s Center for Clinical Medical Ethics director Lydia Dugdale, MD, a medical error is a medical error, regardless of a physician’s status as either a novice or a veteran. Experience should not sway a physician’s ethical responsibilities. In other words, a new physician whose error is based on lack of experience must nonetheless report the incident and face the consequences. Dr. Dugdale further reminds physicians that, conversely, they also have a moral obligation to report medical errors performed by a senior attending physician. She advises junior physicians in such situations to seek advice from an ombudsperson, department chair, or supervisor. Ultimately, no matter who commits a medical error, patients must be informed of the occurrence and physicians must assume responsibility for their actions.