Fess Up to Avoid More Serious Problems

Physician's Money Digest, August 2007, Volume 14, Issue 8

Significant progress has been made to reduce medical mistakes, but they will never be eliminated. According to a recent article in Newsweek, patients and their families want three things: acknowledgment that something has gone wrong, an explanation of the mistake that was made, and assurance that steps have been taken to either correct the mistake or ensure it never happens again. A recent survey of several thousand physicians showed that all too often this is not done. When it comes to obvious errors, only 42% of the physicians surveyed said they would inform the patient of the error. And only 37% would provide information about how future errors will be prevented. While it's difficult for someone in any profession to admit to a mistake, physicians must also deal with the threat of a malpractice suit—and they are often advised to make no admissions or statements of responsibility. However, according to the article, experience shows that disclosure, apology, and early financial compensation dramatically reduced the number of malpractice suits at the Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals in the 1990s and, more recently, in other programs run by the physician insurers in Colorado and at the University of Michigan.