Case and Commentary
Dec 1999

Disclosing the Truth about Medical Error

Audiey Kao, MD, PhD
Virtual Mentor. 1999;1(4):26-27. doi: 10.1001/virtualmentor.1999.1.4.hlaw1-9912.


Both ethics and law address norms that govern physicians’ behavior.

Many view the law as a baseline for articulating the limits placed on individuals living within society as well as an enabling device to facilitate social relationships. Encompassing as the law may be in some areas of human conduct, in many others it is silent. In the absence of legal norms or prohibitions, physicians often find guidance in the standards arrived at through ethical reasoning. To guide students through the process of ethical reasoning and to acquaint them with case law, a new case study will appear every 2 to 4 weeks. Students will be given legal and/or ethical opinions to assist their decision-making.

Questions for Discussion

  1. Does a physician's duty to disclose a medical mistake depend on the severity of complications incurred by the patient? [1-3]
  2. What types of support mechanisms would be helpful for medical students and physicians-in-training to assist them to better deal with disclosing mistakes to their patients? [4,5]

See what the AMA Code of Medical Ethics says about this topic in Opinion 8.12 Patient information. American Medical Association. Code of Medical Ethics 2008-2009 Edition. Chicago, IL: American Medical Association; 2008:263-265.


  1. National Patient Safety Foundation at the AMA. Accessed November 12, 1999.

  2. Greely HT. Do physicians have a duty to disclose mistakes? West J Med. 1999;171(2):82-83.

  3. Pilpel D, Schor R, Benbassat J. Barriers to acceptance of medical error: the case for a teaching program (695). Med Educ. 1998;32(1):3-7.
  4. Witman AB, Park DM, Hardin SB. How do patients want physicians to handle mistakes? a survey of internal medicine patients in an academic setting. Arch Intern Med. 1996;156(22):2565-2569.
  5. Doyal L, Hurwitz B. The morality of medical mistakes: doctors' obligations and patients' expectations. Practitioner. 1987;231(1428):615-620.


Virtual Mentor. 1999;1(4):26-27.



The viewpoints expressed on this site are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the AMA.