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The Ethics of Error in Medicine

Shamai A. Grossman, Kiersten L. Gurley, and Richard E. Wolfe

Abstract

The practice of medicine forces medical practitioners to make difficult and challenging choices on a daily basis. On the one hand we are obligated to cure with every resource available, while on the other hand we put the patient at risk because our treatments are flawed. To understand the ethics of error in medicine, its moral value, and the effects, error must first be defined. However, definition of error remains elusive, and its incidence has been extraordinarily difficult to quantify. Yet, a health care system that acknowledges error as a consequence of normative ethical practice must create systems to minimize error. Error reduction, in turn, should attempt to decrease patient harm and improve the entire health care system. We discuss a number of ethical and moral considerations that arise from practicing medicine despite anticipated error.