A May 18th article in the New York Times described a new program at several prominent hospitals across the nation. When a medical mistake was made, the doctor met with the patient and explained what happened. An apology was offered. Then the hospital offered to pay for the damage. In other words, the doctor and hospital did what is known as “doing the right thing”. Taking responsibility when you make a mistake and offering to pay for the damage is pretty basic ethical behavior. The only reason ever to turn to the court system is for those times when people refuse to take responsibility for their actions. For years the strategy of doctors and hospitals has been just the opposite. Instead of telling a patient what happened and taking full responsibility, medical errors were hidden. If a patient found out anyway, the strategy switched to deny and defend. Top legal defense teams found experts to deny any error happened and did whatever they could to attack and discredit the patient. So what happened when the doctors and hospitals decided to do the right thing? Lawsuits dropped off sharply. Less money was paid out in legal claims. Patients weren’t angry. By promptly telling a patient about a mistake, offering a real apology and fair compensation, the goal was to restore some integrity to the patient relationship, making it easier to avoid the error in the future and prevent angry patients that might be tempted to sue. Lawyers have known for many years that what makes people bring lawsuits isn’t always that a mistake was made, it’s the hiding of the error and the patient’s fear it will happen to somebody else if they don’t do something. When the program was started at the University of Michigan Hospital, doctors feared a flood of new lawsuits. Instead, they reported a decrease in suits, savings in legal costs and lower malpractice premiums. Richard Boothman, the hospital’s chief risk officer was quoted as saying “Improving patient safety and patient communication is more likely to cure the malpractice crisis than defensiveness and denial.” Imagine that.
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