Despite this basic psychology, ‘deny and defend’ has been the traditional mantra of malpractice lawyers and insurance companies. US studies have shown that only about 30% of medical errors have been disclosed to patients in the past. There is no evidence that being honest with patients makes it more likely a doctor will be sued, according to Dr. Lucian Leape from the Harvard School of Public Health, who is an internationally recognized leader of the patient safety movement. In fact, he said, most evidence points to the opposite.
“When you are honest, and inform patients, and apologize and make some effort at restitution, the actual number of suits drops dramatically and the total amount of payouts drop dramatically. That is, you pay much smaller amounts to compensate people for the injury – the kind of payments most of us think [are] totally appropriate. I don’t think patients should have to sue us in order to have us pay for an injury that we caused.”
An honest and heartfelt apology can go a long way to alleviate patient anger and dissatisfaction, and perhaps even prevent—rather than hasten—any legal action. Dr Leape advises: “To apologize effectively to a patient for a medical error, first find out exactly what happened. Get the facts. Don’t simply react with emotion or guilt. If an apology is, indeed, warranted, make sure that it is sincere. Acknowledge the error, give the patient an explanation of what happened, express remorse that it happened, and outline what steps you will take to make reparation.”
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