Department of Medicine Publications

Error or "Act of God"? A Study of Patients' and Operating Room Team Members' Perceptions of Error Definition, Reporting, and Disclosure

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BACKGROUND: Calls abound for a culture change in health care to improve patient safety. However, effective change cannot proceed without a clear understanding of perceptions and beliefs about error. In this study, we describe and compare operative team members' and patients' perceptions of error, reporting of error, and disclosure of error.

METHODS: Thirty-nine interviews of team members (9 surgeons, 9 nurses, 10 anesthesiologists) and patients (11) were conducted at 2 teaching hospitals using 4 scenarios as prompts. Transcribed responses to open questions were analyzed by 2 researchers for recurrent themes using the grounded-theory method. Yes/no answers were compared across groups using chi-square analyses.

RESULTS: Team members and patients agreed on what constitutes an error. Deviation from standards and negative outcome were emphasized as definitive features. Patients and nurse professionals differed significantly in their perception of whether errors should be reported. Nurses were willing to report only events within their disciplinary scope of practice. Although most patients strongly advocated full disclosure of errors (what happened and how), team members preferred to disclose only what happened. When patients did support partial disclosure, their rationales varied from that of team members.

CONCLUSIONS: Both operative teams and patients define error in terms of breaking the rules and the concept of "no harm no foul." These concepts pose challenges for treating errors as system failures. A strong culture of individualism pervades nurses' perception of error reporting, suggesting that interventions are needed to foster collective responsibility and a constructive approach to error identification.


Dr. Lorelei Lingard is currently a faculty member at The University of Western Ontario.

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