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Medical Error: Honesty Is the Best Policy

Medical Error: Honesty Is the Best Policy

Doctors, being human, will occasionally make mistakes. Medical school, however, traditionally has not taught physicians how to deal with errors. Once physicians begin practicing, their risk managers and malpractice attorneys typically advise them to never admit culpability.

This attitude is gradually changing, however, as the medical profession comes to realize that many medical errors are reflections of the health care system itself rather than incidental lapses on the part of an individual health care provider. By 2005, 70 percent of all accredited hospitals had adopted error disclosure policies so that patients will be informed of unanticipated outcomes.

Disclosure policies typically contain three elements. The physician must take responsibility for the error, the physician must apologize for the error, and the physician must speak with the patient or the patient’s family about ways to prevent the error from reoccurring in the future. Error disclosure has now become a standard part of the curriculum in medical, nursing, pharmacy and other health profession schools.

Interestingly, hospitals and other health care institutions where error disclosure has become part of the institutional policy have seen a drop in malpractice claims and requests for compensation due to medical error. The University of Michigan Health System found that malpractice claims dropped by half between 2001 and 2007 after their health care institutions implemented a policy of disclosure.

Apology does not reduce liability. Additionally, in many instances, patients are not injured by the actions of a single health care provider, but by communication breakdowns between many providers such as physicians, nurses, technicians, pharmacists and others working together. Nonetheless, the evidence shows that when patients are harmed by unanticipated outcomes related to negligence, honesty, information and an assurance that preventive measures will be put into place goes a long way to assuaging the outrage that is the basis for many medical malpractice suits.

Source: The Washington Post, “Medical errors are hard for doctors to admit, but it’s wise to apologize to patients“, Manoj Jain, May 27, 2013

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