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New guidance spells out doctors’ duty of candour to admit mistakes

Employers allow for an open and honest culture

Jo Carlowe

Monday, 29 June 2015

Doctors and other medical professionals have a duty of candour and should offer patients face to face explanations when things go wrong.

In new guidance from the General Medical Council (GMC) and the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC), the regulators set out standards expected of all doctors, nurses and midwives practising in the UK. 

In addition, employers are urged to create conditions which encourage medical staff to admit to their mistakes and patients and the guidance aims to help patients understand what to expect from healthcare professionals. 

Under the new guidance doctors, nurses and midwives should:

  • Speak to a patient, or those close to them, as soon as possible after they realise something has gone wrong with their care.
  • Apologise to the patient - explain what happened, what can be done if they have suffered harm and what will be done to prevent someone else being harmed in the future.
  • Use their professional judgement about whether to inform patients about near misses – incidents which have the potential to result in harm but do not.
  • Report errors at an early stage so that lessons can be learned quickly, and patients are protected from harm in the future.
  • Not try to prevent colleagues or former colleagues from raising concerns about patient safety.
  • Managers must make sure that if people do raise concerns they are protected from unfair criticism, detriment or dismissal.

The guidance follows Sir Robert Francis QC’s call for a more open and transparent culture within healthcare following the failures in patient care at Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust. It has been jointly produced by the GMC and the NMC to make sure that doctors, nurses and midwives are working together to a common professional standard and behaving in the same way – especially when mistakes are made. 

In England the professional duty of candour will sit alongside a legal obligation on organisations with similar measures being introduced in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Niall Dickson, Chief Executive of the General Medical Council, said: “We recognise that things can and do go wrong sometimes. It is what doctors, nurses and midwives do afterwards that matters. If they act in good faith, are open about what has happened and offer an apology this can make a huge difference to the patient and those close to them.

“We also want to send out a clear message to employers and clinical leaders - none of this will work without an open and honest learning culture, in which staff feel empowered to admit mistakes and raise concerns. We know from the Mid Staffordshire enquiry and from our own work with doctors that such a culture does not always prevail. It remains one of the biggest challenges facing our healthcare system and a major impediment to safe effective care.”

Commenting, Jackie Smith, Chief Executive of the Nursing and Midwifery Council, said: “We developed this joint guidance to help nurses, midwives and doctors to uphold a common duty of candour that is set out in their professional standards. They often work as part of a team and that should absolutely be our approach as regulators to ensure we are protecting the public.”

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