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Discussing Harm-Causing Errors With Patients

An Ethics Primer for Plastic Surgeons

Vercler, Christian J. MD, MA; Buchman, Steven R. MD; Chung, Kevin C. MD, MS

doi: 10.1097/SAP.0000000000000217
Circumspectus Medicinae: Texts and Contexts

Plastic surgery is a field that demands perfection, yet despite our best efforts errors occur every day. Most errors are minor, but occasionally patients are harmed by our mistakes. Although there is a strong ethical requirement for full disclosure of medical errors, data suggest that surgeons have a difficult time disclosing errors and apologizing. “Conventional wisdom” has been to avoid frank discussion of errors with patients. This concept is fueled by the fear of litigation and the notion that any expression of apology leads to malpractice suits. Recently, there has been an increase in the literature pointing to the inadequacy of this approach. Policies that require disclosure of harm-causing medical errors to the patient and the family, apology, and an offer of compensation cultivate the transparency necessary for quality improvement efforts as well as the positive moral development of trainees. There is little published in the plastic surgery literature regarding error disclosure to provide guidance to practitioners. In this article, we will review the ethical, therapeutic, and practical issues involved in discussing the error with the patient and apologizing by presenting a representative case. This primer will provide an understanding of the definition of medical error, the ethical support of error disclosure, the barriers to disclosure, and how to overcome those barriers.

From the Section of Plastic Surgery, Department of Surgery, University of Michigan Medical School, Ann Arbor, MI.

Received December 30, 2013, and accepted for publication, after revision, March 6, 2014.

Conflicts of interest and sources of funding: none declared.

Reprints: Christian J. Vercler, MD, MA, Section of Plastic Surgery, Department of Surgery, University of Michigan Medical School, 1540 E Hospital Dr, CS Mott Children’s Hospital, Suite 4-730, Ann Arbor, MI 48109-4219. E-mail:

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