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Should surgeons point out medical malpractice to patients?

Sometimes, Massachusetts surgeons end up correcting a mistake made by another surgeon. Surgically correcting the mistake may be the easiest part of their job. Many of these doctors struggle with the moral dilemma of whether to inform the patient of the error -- essentially accusing a colleague of medical malpractice.

There is at least some agreement among physicians that they are ethically obligated to inform a patient when they make a mistake. However, when it comes to a colleague, many doctors are hesitant to point out that a mistake has been made. Referrals are a large part of a doctor's business, and a tattletale is not likely to get many patients sent his or her way. In addition, if the surgeon makes a mistake, no one may be there to back him or her up. Other physicians often stay quiet, even when the error harmed the patient.

Ultimately, the patients suffer. The lack of communication could end up further endangering their life. Doctors often become distant and uncommunicative once a patient becomes aware that a mistake was made. Potentially, this may increase any hostility between the patient and physician and does not solve the problem.

One hospital network in Maryland requires its doctors to report an error to its supervisors -- regardless of who made the mistake. Within the hospital system, corrective action is taken to improve processes in order to avoid the error in the future. If a patient suffers harm due to the error, reparations are made to the patient proactively.

Unfortunately, this type of program is not used in a large number of hospitals, doctor's offices or surgical centers in Massachusetts and around the country. Until this type of transparency becomes more prevalent in the medical world, patients may be left to their own devices when it comes to medical malpractice. During the course of any civil litigation, physicians may be required to come forward and testify regarding an error that was made during the care of a particular patient.

Source: philly.com, Why doctors stay quiet about mistakes their colleagues make, Marshall Allen, Nov. 8, 2013

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