Sources: sorry works! coalition; Healthcare Providers Insurance Exchange; National Institutes of Health; National Institute of Medicine

It seems obvious to most of us but the importance of making an early an honest disclosure to a patient could mean the difference between no litigation at all or an expedient an amicable settlement.  Contrast that with the lack of empathy, avoidance or flat out denial and obfuscation so typical of our health care system and you have all but guaranteed protracted and acrimonious litigation.  We try to make all of our clients understand that we can’t make them or their loved ones whole again, or undo the physical and emotional suffering endured, that it isn’t personal -except it often is.

Groups such as the Sorry Works! Coalition have been advising hospitals, physicians and risk managers of the value of early and honest disclosures regarding medical errors for several years.  It seems that the medical malpractice insurance industry is finally catching on as well.  We’ve long recognized the value of this as among the most frequent complaints we hear from clients is that the doctor, nurse or hospital “didn’t acknowledge” that they had done something wrong, “didn’t seem to care” about the outcome and “didn’t even say they were sorry” that things went unexpectedly wrong.

Instead doctors find themselves in an antagonistic relationship with their own patients.  The medical malpractice insurance industry would have you believe it’s all because of “frivilous lawsuits” and the “fear of litigation” brought about by Plaintiff trial attorneys.  The reality is that apologies can cost insurance companies money in the form of settlements.  This runs contrary to their traditional model of dragging out litigation for as long as possible, making it an expensive proposition for the patient and their attorneys to discourage otherwise valid lawsuits.  This further allows medical malpractice insurance companies to keep their money in the bank longer, knowing that they will raise the premiums of their insured at the conslusion of litigation to offset any loss in profit.

So why not simply let the doctors and hospitals and Joint Commissions and Physician Boards take care of their own?  Because they don’t do a very good job of it.  The National Institute of Medicine estimates that 120 patients die every day in US hospitals as a direct result of medical errors.  We may have one of the best healthcare systems in the world, but it still isn’t good enough for the 120 patients on any given day.  Preventable occurrences such as wrong site surgeries (operating on wrong part of body) continue to be one of the largest categories of error.  Patient falls and medication errors are a close second and third.  Add to this the shortage of staffing from doctors to nurses to technicians and it’s clear to see that another approach may be needed.

What’s wrong with letting patients and their families know that something went wrong? (hint: they already know that)  Better still, let them know how the error likely happened, what the doctor and hospital plan to do for the family now that it has occurred and what they plan to do in the future to ensure that it is not likely to happen again.  Contrary to what the medical malpractice insurance industry spends a great deal of money advertising, “tort reform” doesn’t address the issues.  Preventing preventable medical errors before they occur, and being open and honest with patients and their families when they do occur, is the real answer to the problem.

If you or a loved one were the victim of a preventable medical error and the doctor and hospital have not given you answers, much less an apology, contact the Lewis Law Firm for a free consultation.

Posted by: Gayle R. Lewis, Esquire