Understanding patients' perceptions of medical errors

UMMS Affiliation

Meyers Primary Care Institute

Publication Date


Document Type



Medical Errors; Physician-Patient Relations


Health Services Research | Primary Care


This study of patients and family members of patients who believed they had experienced a medical error sought to describe their perceptions of what had occurred; the impact of the error on the patient and family; their perceptions of how the providers and institutions involved responded to the error; and how the providers' response or non-response influenced the patient's reaction. In-depth, qualitative telephone interviews were conducted with community members who believed they or a family member had experienced a medical error. During 17 interviews, 23 incidents which were perceived as errors were reported and described. Errors impacted patients and family members in a variety of ways, causing physical and emotional harm, disrupting day-to-day life, and leading to changes in health-related behaviours. Providers' responses varied, and often did not meet the needs of the patient and family members. Based on these findings, the study recommends open communication about errors and adverse events. Lack of disclosure will not ensure that the patient will not learn that an error has occurred, and omitting information about non-preventable adverse events may lead patients to suspect errors when no error occurred. In addition, healthcare providers should seek to understand the full impact of the error on the patient and the family, to respond in a way that demonstrates this awareness, and match the specific needs of the affected patient and family. Finally, encouraging patients to report errors, and responding appropriately when they do may help healthcare systems to identify and correct weak systems, preventing recurrences.


Mazor KM, Goff SL, Dodd K, Alper EJ. Understanding patients’ perceptions of medical errors. Journal of Communication in Healthcare. 2009;2:34-46.

Journal/Book/Conference Title

Journal of Communication in Healthcare