An overseas expert has called for doctors to be better trained in communication skills, saying this will improve their relationship with patients and help minimise litigation.
Professor Thomas Gallagher, from the University of Washington, is visiting Sydney for the first international conference on incident disclosure.
He says failure to explain to patients when things go wrong is "like pouring salt in their wounds".
Dr Gallagher says while Australia is a world leader in the area, doctors needed to be better trained in communicating with patients.
"These are very difficult conversations to have, and many clinicians don't feel comfortable with their communication skills - they're just not sure what to say," he said.
"The frontline healthcare worker still gets mixed messages from institutions and their colleagues.
"They're told, 'of course you can tell the patient what happened, just don't admit fault'."
Embarrassment and shame were the main barriers to better disclosure by doctors, he said.
Dr Gallagher said that disclosing mistakes was an important way for doctors and patients to maintain a trusting relationship.
"Patients think about disclosure as being more than just words," he said.
"They want an explanation and an apology ... They want the institution to take responsibility for what's happened, to put in place systems to prevent recurrences, and if the patient has financial needs as a result of what happened, they expect those to be met too."
He half of doctors surveyed said they had made such a disclosure and three quarters reported feeling relief.
Proper incident disclosure could also protect doctors against legal action.
"Litigation oftentimes results when patients don't feel they've been given a proper explanation, or if they don't feel that the institution has learned anything from what happened," Dr Gallagher told AAP.