7 residents’ advice on what to do if you make a medical error

By Kristen Fuller, MD
Published November 27, 2023

Key Takeaways

Residency is a training program—a safety net that allows you to make mistakes and hopefully learn from them. Mistakes in residency are par for the course, but the way these mistakes contribute to your growth is the bread and butter of residency.

I made quite a few medical errors in residency. On long call nights when I was beyond exhausted, I would put an order in for a medication that clearly did not make sense. The pharmacist would page me and kindly help rectify my mistake, and I would make a point to express my gratitude for their patience. Experiences like these are why I always tell medical students and residents to be grateful and savor every teaching moment; don’t be a “know it all” and avoid being defensive or angry when you make a mistake. 

We asked medical residents, “What advice would you give other residents who have made a medical error?” Here's what they had to say.

medical error resident stressed

Be gentle with yourself

Jake Jacob, MD: “First off, don't beat yourself up. Seriously, it's easy to feel like you're the worst doctor in the world when something goes wrong, but remember that everyone—and I mean everyone—messes up at some point. It's a learning curve, and you're still learning.

“Next, own up to it. Transparency is key. If something went wrong, it's better to admit it and work with your team to find a solution. Trying to cover it up won't help anyone and could make things worse. Your colleagues will respect you more for being honest. Talk to your supervisor or mentor about it. They're there to guide you, and they've probably been through similar situations themselves. They can offer advice on how to handle it, and their support can make a world of difference."

"Remember, making an error doesn't define you as a doctor. It's how you handle it and learn from it that matters."

Jake Jacob, MD

doctors talking

Be open to opposition

Abeeha Naqvi, MD: “I would advise residents first and foremost to listen to all sides of an event and try to understand an opposing opinion. Sometimes we can become lost in our bias and then spiral to support what we think is right." 

"Try to remain constantly open to evolve our thinking for the most holistic approach to patient care."

Abeeha Naqvi, MD

resident and attending collaborating

Be transparent with your supervisors

Christina Pedro, MD, MBA: “Medical errors happen. What really counts is how the error was addressed and what infrastructure was set in place to avoid the same mistake happening again.”

"Depending on the severity of the medical error, after it was corrected it would be important to share with the supervising attending or even the program director."

Christina Pedro, MD, MBA

two residents supporting each other

More advice from residents

  • James Skinner, MD: “Tell your patients or attendings about your mistake—don’t hide it.”

  • Ravi Patel, MD: “Own it and tell your supervisors; turn it into a learning opportunity.”

  • Boyer Bran, MD: “To err is human; try not to feel so bad about it.”

  • Mark Winfield, MD: “Try to focus on your medical training, and think of every patient case as means of self improvement and learning.”

Parting thoughts

Generally, we are trained to be “perfect,” and more than often, we are extremely diligent, we work very hard, and we want to perform at our best. All of these self-perceptions can set us up for failure, as we are bound to make mistakes in residency. These mistakes can eat away at our ego, but they can also teach us grace and humility. 

Sometimes we need to make mistakes in order to realize that, although we are doctors, we are also human. We are not perfect—we are a work in progress.

Every medical resident has a question to ask and a story to tell—a comical moment, a prickly patient encounter, or a hack for staying sane during residency. We survey medical trainees for their best questions and answers and bring them to you in this column. Engaging, enlightening, and entertaining—from resident to resident!

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