I’m Sorry Actually Works

The New York Times yesterday had a front page article on how doctors have discovered that saying “I’m sorry” for medical mistakes makes a lot of sense. There is part of me that says “It’s about time!” Many of us in the field have known about this phenomenon for some time based on the research by Jonathan Cohen and others dating from 2000 on VA hospitals that demonstrates how hospitals can save time and money by adopting policies that encourage medical professionals to come clean. On the other hand, now that it is front page news in the New York Times, we know that apologies have truly arrived.

As the article outlines, “For decades, malpractice lawyers and insurers have counseled doctors and hospitals to “deny and defend.” Many still warn clients that any admission of fault, or even expression of regret, is likely to invite litigation and imperil careers. But with providers choking on malpractice costs and consumers demanding action against medical errors, a handful of prominent academic medical centers, like Johns Hopkins and Stanford, are trying a disarming approach. By promptly disclosing medical errors and offering earnest apologies and fair compensation, they hope to restore integrity to dealings with patients, make it easier to learn from mistakes and dilute anger that often fuels lawsuits. Malpractice lawyers say that what often transforms a reasonable patient into an indignant plaintiff is less an error than its concealment, and the victim’s concern that it will happen again. Despite some projections that disclosure would prompt a flood of lawsuits, hospitals are reporting decreases in their caseloads and savings in legal costs. Malpractice premiums have declined in some instances, though market forces may be partly responsible. At the University of Michigan Health System, one of the first to experiment with full disclosure, existing claims and lawsuits dropped to 83 in August 2007 from 262 in August 2001, said Richard C. Boothman, the medical center’s chief risk officer. “Improving patient safety and patient communication is more likely to cure the malpractice crisis than defensiveness and denial,” Mr. Boothman said. Mr. Boothman emphasized that he could not know whether the decline was due to disclosure or safer medicine, or both. But the hospital’s legal defense costs and the money it must set aside to pay claims have each been cut by two-thirds, he said. The time taken to dispose of cases has been halved. The number of malpractice filings against the University of Illinois has dropped by half since it started its program just over two years ago, said Dr. Timothy B. McDonald, the hospital’s chief safety and risk officer. In the 37 cases where the hospital acknowledged a preventable error and apologized, only one patient has filed suit. Only six settlements have exceeded the hospital’s medical and related expenses.”

Thirty-four states now prohibit using an apology for a medical error against the doctor in court. Federal legislation has been proposed but died in committee. Perhaps the New York Times article and the focus on preventing medical error will help revive this legislation….

4 thoughts on “I’m Sorry Actually Works”

  1. Should we apologize when we have every intention to 1) drive you to madness, 2) giggle uncontrollably, 3) provide important inspiration for blog postings that will certainly illuminate the field.

    It’s a difficult job but fortunately we’ve been conditioned by the demands of your courses, which have improved our “create new options” skills. Now they can be employed for nefarious purposes.

  2. Mat–so delighted that this posting allowed you to finally come clean on your hilarious April Fool’s Day joke. I will now have to post on revenge!

  3. Andrea,

    I am so, so, so sorry for hiding a device that produces shrill, intermittent beeps deep within your office, on April Fools Day, with the full intent to drive you mad. I am also deeply regretful, and sincerely apologize for the unfortunate, though completely anticipated, fact that you then blamed parties who were complete innocent, and meant you no ill will. Over the last several weeks, I have often thought of your plight, and in between giggling to myself and with my co-conspirators (none of which are employed by MULS, if you are curious) , I sincerely tried to feel what you are experiencing– an unsuspecting victim of my grand genius. I hope to one day regain your trust (for it will make future pranks so much easier to achieve).

    -Brother Mat

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