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Radiologists Reluctant to Admit Mammography Errors to Patients

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According to a new study released this month, radiologists may not be so honest when it comes to admitting their mistakes. Specifically, radiologists may not disclose mammography errors to patients, resulting in delayed treatment for progressive cancers.

The study, conducted by the departments of medicine and bioethics & humanities at the University of Washington, surveyed 364 radiologists at seven different Breast Cancer Surveillance Consortium sites located in separate geographical areas. The radiologists were given a hypothetical situation in which comparison screening mammograms were placed in an incorrect order, so that it appeared as if breast calcifications were decreasing in number in a patient when they had actually increased. The doctors were then told that there was an error, which resulted in a delay in treating the cancer. The radiologists were then asked to respond to three questions: 1) how likely they were to disclose the mistake, 2) what information they would share, and 3) what were their actual experiences and attitudes with malpractice.

The results of the study indicated that:

  • 24% responded that they would “not say anything further to the patient”
  • 31% responded that they would tell the patient that “the calcifications are larger now and are suspicious for cancer”
  • 30% responded that they would tell the patient “the calcifications may have increased on your last mammogram, but their appearance was not as worrisome as they are now”
  • 15% responded that they would tell the patient that “an error had occurred during the interpretation of your last mammogram, and the calcifications had actually increased in number, not decreased”

74% of the radiologists claimed that they were more reluctant to tell patients of mistakes because of fears over medical malpractice. Apparently, failure to report errors to patients was not an uncommon practice for many of the radiologists surveyed. In fact, 49% admitted that they had been sued for medical negligence. However, other factors also had an effect in the radiologists’ degree of honesty. For example, physicians have expressed concerns over increasing stress in patients after admitting a medical error. Furthermore, the study author also hypothesized that some physicians feel uncomfortable with their communication skills, and struggle to admit to a patient that they had mad a mistake. Despite these other factors, 15% is not a comforting amount of radiologists who say they would be completely honest about their mistakes. Hopefully, continued studies like this will help to improve doctor and patient communication.

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  1. Mike Bryant says:
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    You combine this with the idea that defensive medicine, is the ordering of tests that are not necessary, it makes you wonder why the tort deformers think that cap will make things better for the consumer. I like a lot of doctors and think there much better than this untrustworthy lot.