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Perm J. 2013 Spring;17(2):73-9. doi: 10.7812/TPP/12-106.

Disclosing medical mistakes: a communication management plan for physicians.

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  • 1Department of Communication Studies at Indiana University School of Liberal Arts at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, USA.



There is a growing consensus that disclosure of medical mistakes is ethically and legally appropriate, but such disclosures are made difficult by medical traditions of concern about medical malpractice suits and by physicians' own emotional reactions. Because the physician may have compelling reasons both to keep the information private and to disclose it to the patient or family, these situations can be conceptualized as privacy dilemmas. These dilemmas may create barriers to effectively addressing the mistake and its consequences. Although a number of interventions exist to address privacy dilemmas that physicians face, current evidence suggests that physicians tend to be slow to adopt the practice of disclosing medical mistakes.


This discussion proposes a theoretically based, streamlined, two-step plan that physicians can use as an initial guide for conversations with patients about medical mistakes. The mistake disclosure management plan uses the communication privacy management theory.


The steps are 1) physician preparation, such as talking about the physician's emotions and seeking information about the mistake, and 2) use of mistake disclosure strategies that protect the physician-patient relationship. These include the optimal timing, context of disclosure delivery, content of mistake messages, sequencing, and apology. A case study highlighted the disclosure process.


This Mistake Disclosure Management Plan may help physicians in the early stages after mistake discovery to prepare for the initial disclosure of a medical mistakes. The next step is testing implementation of the procedures suggested.

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