Medical errors are all too common. Ever since a report issued by the Institute of Medicine raised awareness of this unfortunate reality, an emerging theme has gained prominence in the literature on medical error. Fears of blame and punishment, it is often claimed, allow errors to remain undisclosed. Accordingly, modern healthcare must shift away from blame towards a culture of safety in order to effectively reduce the occurrence of error. Against this shift, I argue that it would serve the medical community well to retain notions of individual responsibility and blame in healthcare settings. In particular, expressions of moral emotions—such as guilt, regret and remorse—appear to play an important role in the process of disclosing harmful errors to patients and families. While such self-blaming responses can have negative psychological effects on the individual practitioner, those who take the blame are in the best position to offer apologies and show that mistakes are being taken seriously, thereby allowing harmed patients and families to move forward in the wake of medical error.
- medical error
- moral psychology
- applied and professional ethics
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