Only HALF of surgeons apologise for any mishaps during a procedure

  • 13 per cent don’t express any regret for something going wrong in surgery
  • Just over half of surgeons discussed whether the event was preventable 
  • Those who didn’t discuss if it was preventable were negatively affected
  • Medical errors are known to be the third leading cause of death in the US

Stephen Matthews For Mailonline


Transparency and honest communication is what we expect from someone who is about to operate on our body.

But only 55 per cent of surgeons apologise if something goes wrong during surgery, a new survey has revealed.

And just over half discussed whether the error was preventable with the patient.

Even more worryingly, 13 per cent didn’t express any regret for mishaps that occurred during surgery. 

Only 55 per cent of surgeons apologise if something goes wrong during an operation, a survey has revealed

The study, from Boston University, comes after medical errors were found earlier this month to be the third leading cause of death in the US after heart disease and cancer.

More than 250,000 deaths each year are caused by medical error, patient safety experts at Johns Hopkins University identified.

That figure surpasses the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s third leading cause of death – respiratory disease – which kills close to 150,000 people each year. 

Of the 4.6 million surgical procedures carried out each year in the UK, blunders only occur in one in 20,000 cases of surgery, according to NHS England.

But what worries some experts is despite repeated efforts, ‘never events’ do not seem to be declining.

Never events are serious, preventable events which should not occur if surgeons have followed the methods in place. 

Figures showed there were 254 between April and the end of December 2015 – compared to 306 in the 12 months from April 2014 to March 2015. 

US guidelines recommend full disclosure of adverse events or unanticipated outcomes to patients and their family members.  

For this study, the Boston researchers found the vast majority of surgeons used five of the eight recommended disclosure techniques.

These are:  

* Explaining why it happened – 92 per cent

* Expressing regret for what happened – 87 per cent

* Expressing concern for the patient’s welfare – 95 per cent

* Disclosing the adverse event within 24 hours – 97 per cent

* Discussing steps taken to treat any subsequent problems – 98 per cent 

The other three were: apologising to patients (55 per cent), discussing whether the error was preventable (55 per cent) and discussing how it could be stopped from ever happening again (32 per cent).

US guidelines recommend full disclosure of mishaps or unanticipated outcomes to patients and their families 

Dr Thomas Gallagher, study author, told Kaiser Health News: ‘For a long time in the field, people thought the primary reason physicians have trouble reporting adverse events is they were worried about being sued, but there are other barriers that are more important.

‘This paper helps highlight how embarrassing and upsetting these events are for clinicians.’

He added committing errors ‘makes it difficult for the physician to admit to the patient’.

The findings were gathered by experts from the Veterans Affairs Boston Healthcare System and Boston University.

The 21-question survey was given to 67 specialist surgeons from three medical centers.

Researchers also found surgeons who failed to discuss whether what happened in surgery was preventable were more negatively affected.

Surgeons with more negative attitudes about disclosure were more anxious about patients’ surgical outcomes or events following an operation.

Writing in the journal JAMA Surgery, the authors said very little has been done to assess disclosing mishaps with patients – a skill which requires skills in open communication.

They said: ‘Future quality improvement efforts may be able to help sustain the implementation of open disclosure programs nationwide while also ensuring a healthy surgeon workforce.’  


Registered surgeons in the UK must act in an open and transparent way with relevant persons in relation to care and treatment provided to service users in carrying on a regulated activity.

As soon as reasonably practicable after becoming aware that a notifiable safety incident has occurred a registered person must:

  • Notify the relevant person that the incident has occurred. It must be given in person by one or more of the surgeon’s representatives 
  • Provide an accurate account of what went wrong and advise the patient as to any further enquiries and include an apology.
  • Provide reasonable support to the relevant person in relation to the incident, including when giving such notification.

But if the relevant person cannot be contacted in person or declines to speak to the representative of the registered person then a written record is to be kept of attempts to contact or to speak to the relevant person. 

Source: Care Quality Commission

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