This article proposes that knowledge of cultural expectations concerning ethical responses to unintentional harm can help students and physicians better to understand patients’ distress when physicians fail to disclose, apologise for, and make amends for harmful medical errors. While not universal, the Judeo-Christian traditions of confession, repentance, and forgiveness inform the cultural expectations of many individuals within secular western societies. Physicians’ professional obligations concerning truth telling reflect these expectations and are inclusive of the disclosure of medical error, while physicians may express a need for self-forgiveness after making errors and should be aware that patients may also rely upon forgiveness as a means of dealing with harm. The article recommends that learning how to disclose errors, apologise to injured patients, ensure that these patients’ needs are met, and confront the emotional dimensions of one’s own mistakes should be part of medical education and reinforced by the conduct of senior physicians.
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Dr Berlinger’s work was funded by a grant from the Patrick and Catherine Weldon Donaghue Medical Research Foundation. Dr Wu’s work was funded by the US Department of Health and Human Services Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, grant number U18HS11902-01.
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