Could Hearing Docs Apologize Change The Medical Malpractice System?

If recent research and the wise words of medical industry professionals are to be believed, two little words might have the power to revolutionize medical malpractice claims in Oregon and around the country. The words? “I’m sorry.”

Could it really be that simple? Could hearing treating physicians apologize actually bring change to America’s current complicated, emotionally charged and costly method of handling medical malpractice allegations? If the results of similar disclosure experiments around the country are to be believed, then the answer is unequivocally, “yes.”

The status quo

The current system serves no one’s best interests really. Patients are oftentimes left confused, angry, grieving and without closure. Many doctors have been taught for years to remain silent in the face of a negligence claim, both for fear that it might expose them to liability, and that it might reveal some kind of weakness that could taint their reputation. Administrators can get “tunnel vision” after a malpractice allegation, and become so engrossed in the financial ramifications that they totally miss the fact that there could be systemic issues putting more patients in harm’s way.

The revolution

Some hospitals around the country – including the renowned Harvard University hospital system – have introduced the radical idea of having doctors admit medical mistakes or “unintended outcomes,” even if no patient harm occurred as a result. No facilities in Oregon appear to be using a similar system at this time. Proponents of such a disclosure-based system say that it has helped slash legal and medical costs, improve patient safety and improve patient satisfaction.

The state of Massachusetts is so dedicated to this new approach that they now require patients to send a “letter of intent” to put providers on notice that a lawsuit is forthcoming, will not allow a physician’s apology to be used against him or her in court, and have instituted a six-month waiting period during which settlement negotiations should occur before a suit can be filed with the court.

The key disclosure policy, according to a 2006 study performed by a committee of Harvard-affiliated physicians and facilities, has three components:

  • Assume responsibility for the error, mistake, oversight, negligence or unintended outcome
  • Have the doctor, nurse, tech or administrator responsible for the issue frankly apologize to the patient
  • Discuss what actions or policy changes will prevent a similar issue from happening in the future

A success story

A similar program has been successful at the University of Michigan’s network of hospitals, clinics and individual physician offices for years now. Richard Boothman, once a medical malpractice defense attorney, instituted a policy that made the first review of an allegation occur not by the facility itself, but by outside, impartial medical providers.

If the review revealed that the facility/physician is responsible, then someone immediately acts to approach the patient, explain what happened and offer an apology. Shortly thereafter, the hospital system itself would offer a reasonable settlement. Boothman estimates that the program has saved his group millions by expediently and affordably resolving medical malpractice claims instead of watching them wind slowly through the judicial system.

Though this system has value in the medical world and will hopefully be used in Oregon soon, it definitely doesn’t eliminate the need to have an attorney review your case and approach the provider or facility directly about your claim. Also, having an experienced medical malpractice attorney review a settlement offer will give you peace of mind that you are indeed receiving fair compensation that will cover your medical bills, lost wages and other expenses.