Patient-facing communication for cytopathologists: A framework for disclosing diagnostic error


Medical errors are a major source of harm to patients. Regulatory bodies mandate and patient safety experts advocate the disclosure of medical errors to patients to promote transparency and to create accountability for improving health care processes. Although pathologists regularly report errors-either to pathology or clinical colleagues or via internal safety reporting systems-few pathologists directly disclose those errors to patients. Yet many pathologists are interested in participating in the direct disclosure of medical errors to patients and may even be mandated to do so. When surveyed on why they do not directly disclose errors to patients, pathologists commonly cite a lack of confidence and a lack of training. Another barrier cited is the lack of a preexisting relationship between the pathologist and the patient. With respect to this last barrier, cytopathologists have a distinct advantage over surgical or clinical pathologists, as many cytopathologists regularly interact with and develop a rapport with patients when they are performing fine-needle aspiration (FNA) procedures. To improve the safety culture in pathology, direct error disclosure practices must be developed, supported, and strengthened. It is critical for cytopathologists to be comfortable with disclosing errors to patients. Being comfortable with disclosing an error, however, requires training, practice, and advance reflection. Using a practical, case-based format centered around FNA examples, this article addresses how to disclose a medical error to a patient. It provides a framework, heuristic principles, and structured conversation systems and talking points to guide the inexperienced pathologist to find his or her voice in a challenging disclosure conversation.

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