Factors Affecting Doctors from Admitting Mistakes

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Growing up, you probably heard the saying “Honesty is the best policy.” When entering adulthood, our morals regarding honesty are often challenged by particular customs and cultures. The culture of the medical field has opposing views on whether doctors should admit to mistakes, and many choose to skirt around admitting guilt for several reasons.

Job Risk

Similar to most career fields, making several small errors or even one major mistake will put your job in jeopardy. Doctors are not immune to this stigma in the workplace. Some mistakes are more difficult for doctors to pinpoint if they happen to work where the protocol for care is complicated, and several medical professionals are attending to a single patient.

Admitting guilt could lead to possible termination, and it’s hard to fight. For example, in employment-at-will states like Pennsylvania, a doctor would need to hire wrongful termination lawyers in Pittsburgh, PAif that is where they practice medicine.


Even though a doctor may retain his/her employment and license to practice, lawsuits from patients are another threat that can come from being honest about mistakes. Although doctors carry medical malpractice insurance or are covered by their employer, it’s never a goal to need it. Admitting a mistake makes doctors vulnerable to a lawsuit by the patient whether the error could have been avoided or not.

One study conducted by BMJ found that one reason doctors avoid admitting mistakes is because they don’t believe the mistake was severe or they didn’t feel personally responsible for the error. As previously mentioned, it’s often difficult to know precisely where and when the error was made.

Their perception of admitting guilt is that they will receive blame in full when they’re merely the messenger that something went wrong. Don’t shoot the messenger, right? That’s not always how patients see the deliverance of bad news, and doctors are aware of that.


In addition to potential lawsuits, a doctor’s reputation can be severely damaged if they admit to a mistake that was made during diagnosis or treatment. Patients seek advice and expertise from a doctor when their health is in question.

When a doctor admits a mistake, that trust can break. If the trust is lost between a patient and their doctor, they risk losing that patient and possible referrals for excellent care. Their reputation lessens because they are perceived as less trustworthy even if the mistake was intentional.

Despite some positive stories of doctors being honest, the possibilities that run through doctor’s heads is usually an adverse reaction from patients.


Admitting you made a mistake is typically viewed as a learning moment that can build confidence. However, for doctors, the opposite can be true. Recognizing, accepting, AND admitting guilt can kill a doctor’s confidence when It comes to patient care. A lack of confidence can lead to even more mistakes being made because they’ll be second-guessing themselves more often.

Openly admitting mistakes to patients or their employer is likely to lead to lawsuits and termination, at least in their mind. These may not happen immediately, but the threat of them is enough to turn a confident doctor into an incompetent one.