Intended for healthcare professionals

Observations Ethics Man

The hardest thing: admitting error

BMJ 2012; 344 doi: (Published 02 May 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e3085
  1. Daniel K Sokol, honorary senior lecturer in medical ethics, Imperial College London, and barrister, Inner Temple, London
  1. daniel.sokol{at}

There should be no more closing of the ranks when medical errors occur. The interests of the wronged patient should trump those of the clinicians

Even the best close-up magicians make mistakes. They are, simply, unavoidable. Good magicians therefore prepare for mistakes by rehearsing alternative endings and memorising quips in case of irreparable failure: “The real magician will be here in a minute,” or, “It worked fine in the magic shop.” A friend of mine says, “At least if I make a mistake, no one dies.”

Doctors cannot use that line. Their mistakes can lead to serious harm. While a magician’s error is usually apparent to all, a doctor’s error can be difficult to spot, especially by those who are not medically trained. The patient is, after all, already unwell by the time of the doctor’s involvement. The first people who know that an error has occurred are usually the clinical team.

I remember speaking to a doctor who had been consulted by a couple with a severely disabled baby. On reading the medical notes, it dawned on her that the child had probably been subject …

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