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Do house officers learn from their mistakes?
  1. A W Wu1,2,6,
  2. S Folkman4,6,
  3. S J McPhee5,6,
  4. B Lo2,3,4,5,6
  1. 1Department of Veterans Affairs
  2. 2Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholars Program
  3. 3Program in Medical Ethics
  4. 4Center for AIDS Prevention Studies
  5. 5Division of General Internal Medicine
  6. 6Department of Medicine, University of California, San Francisco, USA


    Mistakes are inevitable in medicine. To learn how medical mistakes relate to subsequent changes in practice, we surveyed 254 internal medicine house officers. One hundred and fourteen house officers (45%) completed an anonymous questionnaire describing their most significant mistake and their response to it. Mistakes included errors in diagnosis (33%), prescribing (29%), evaluation (21%), and communication (5%) and procedural complications (11%). Patients had serious adverse outcomes in 90% of the cases, including death in 31% of cases. Only 54% of house officers discussed the mistake with their attending physicians, and only 24% told the patients or families. House officers who accepted responsibility for the mistake and discussed it were more likely to report constructive changes in practice. Residents were less likely to make constructive changes if they attributed the mistake to job overload. They were more likely to report defensive changes if they felt the institution was judgmental. Decreasing the work load and closer supervision may help prevent mistakes. To promote learning, faculty should encourage house officers to accept responsibility and to discuss their mistakes.

    • patient safety
    • medical errors
    • training
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    • Presented in part at the 13th annual meeting of the Society for General Internal Medicine, Arlington, VA, 3 May 1990.

    • This work was supported in part by the Department of Veterans Affairs, Washington, DC; the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Princeton, NJ; center grant MH42459 from the National Institute of Mental Health, Bethesda, MD; and primary care training grant D28PE19179 from the Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, DC.

    • * This is a reprint of a paper that appeared in JAMA, 1991, Volume 265, pages 2089–2094. Copyright © American Medical Association. All rights reserved.

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