Betsy Lehman Center research on open communication after medical errors published in BMJ Quality & Safety

BMJ Quality and Safety this week published an in-depth article on the association of open communication and the emotional impact of medical errors on patients and families based on recent survey research by the Betsy Lehman Center and first-authored by our Research Director, Julia Prentice, PhD.

Alleviate avoidance

The data, which were first released in our 2019 report The Financial and Human Cost of Medical Error, show that emotional impacts from medical errors can persist for years, but open communication about those errors by health care providers is associated with significantly reduced feelings of sadness, depression and feelings of abandonment and betrayal on the part of patients and families.

Most people who experienced a medical error said they received no communication from their providers about the error and, in the aftermath, nearly 80 percent of that group avoided the doctors or facilities involved. This dropped to 30 percent or less for people who were given information and offered a chance to talk and ask questions about a medical error openly with the care team or facility. The data come from an in-depth follow-up survey of 253 Massachusetts residents who indicated they’d had an experience with medical error in a large statewide survey.

Our research underscores that patients and families are a valuable source of information on the quality and safety of health care in our state. It fills a gap in our knowledge about the human toll of medical errors and strongly suggests that open communication by health care providers can alleviate some of the harm.

Our research underscores that patients and families are a valuable source of information on the quality and safety of health care in our state

Barbara Fain, Executive Director, Betsy Lehman Center

I want to personally express my gratitude to the co-authors of the article, who helped the Center shape this vital piece of research: 

  • Sigall Bell, MD, Director of Patient Safety and Discovery at OpenNotes, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School; 
  • Eric J. Thomas, MD, MPH, FACP, Director of the UTHealth – Memorial Hermann Center for Healthcare Quality and Safety; 
  • Eric C. Schneider, MD, Senior Vice President for Policy and Research at The Commonwealth Fund; 
  • Saul Weingart, MD, MPP, PhD, Chief Medical Officer at Tufts Medical Center and Professor of Medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine; 
  • Joel Weissman, PhD, Deputy Director, Chief Scientific Officer, Center for Surgery and Public Health at Brigham and Women’s Hospital; and 
  • Mark Schlesinger, PhD, Department Chair and Professor at Yale School of Public Health.

Barbara Fain
Executive Director


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