The American Medical Association’s Code of Medical Ethics (the Code) requires doctors to inform patients of medical error. This obligation not only protects the relationship between doctor and patient but also promotes patient health and safety.
What Is Considered “Medical Error”?
The Code defines medical error as “an unintended act or omission or a flawed system or plan that harms or has the potential to harm a patient.”
When Must Doctors Disclose These Errors?
According to the Code, doctors who have been involved in a medical error, or even a possible error, owe the patient the ethical obligation to do the following:
- disclose the occurrence of the error,
- explain the nature of the harm or potential harm,
- provide the information needed to enable the patient to make informed decisions about future medical care,
- acknowledge the error and express professional and compassionate concern toward patients who have been harmed in the context of health care, and
- explain efforts that are being taken to prevent similar occurrences in the future.
These obligations apply to physicians even when new information regarding the medical error will not alter the patient’s medical treatment or therapeutic options.
What’s the Purpose of Disclosure?
As the Code explains:
“Open communication is fundamental to the trust that underlies the patient-physician relationship, and physicians have an obligation to deal honestly with patients at all times, in addition to their obligation to promote patient welfare and safety.”
Thus, in addition to protecting the principles of honesty and transparency, the duty has an important practical purpose: “promote patient welfare and safety.”
In sum, the duty to disclose medical error exists for at least three reasons:
- to enable patients informed decision-making in response to the error and its disclosure;
- to protect the trust patients place in the medical profession by promoting transparency; and
- to safeguard patient welfare and safety.
A physician’s breach of the duty to disclose the medical error to a patient thus threatens and may actually harm patient health and safety.
The Bell Law Firm represents clients who have suffered death or catastrophic injury in medical malpractice and other personal injury cases.