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Maintaining trust

Student's role

Senior male physician with two medical trainees

What should I do if I believe a mistake has harmed a patient?

If you are aware of an adverse event (accident in Québec) affecting one of your patients:

  • seek help as appropriate to manage the clinical situation
  • inform your supervising physician of the adverse event
  • provide emotional support to the patient
  • determine if you can attend the disclosure meeting to learn from the experience
  • apologize for your part in the adverse event if appropriate
  • document the adverse event and the discussion

Medical students (and even residents) may feel vulnerable when they witness what they believe to be harm from healthcare delivery that has not been disclosed to the patient. Take care to ensure that your response is constructive and respectful.

The first question you should ask yourself is:
Do I really have enough knowledge to say this is an adverse event?

In any situation, what seems like an adverse event may, in fact, be reasonable evidence-based practice in the patient's circumstances. Before reaching conclusions, you may wish to research the topic.

If you continue to be uncertain about the care provided, you may wish to explore with your supervisor the rationale for the decision, action, or inaction.

If you remain concerned, it may be appropriate for you to discuss the event with a trusted mentor — being careful to maintain the confidentiality of both the patient and provider.

If you continue to believe something may have been amiss in the care of the patient, you may wish to discuss the matter further with the program director or the undergraduate dean.