The Power of I’m Sorry
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.
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