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Apology Laws to Help Ease Medical Mistakes?

For years doctors have been denying any responsibility for mistakes they’ve made, but a new approach is believed to disarm patients and help reopen the door for patient and doctor communication.

This new approach involves disclosing medical errors promptly after they occur and offering genuine apologies to injured patients and their families, rather than going with the deny and defend approach. Some believe that this approach will allow medical professionals to learn from their mistakes and to move on from the guilt and shame caused by these mistakes. Plus, it might help restore integrity in patient dealings.

Dr. Danielle Ofri discusses her experience in a recent Op Ed column to The New York Times.

“It was probably our eighth or ninth admission that day, but my intern and I had given up counting,” Ofri begins. She goes on to describe how, harried by the burden of other pressing patient cases, she failed to check a new patient’s CT scan, missing an intracranial bleed (bleeding around the brain).

“My body turned to stone,” she writes after being told that the scan she failed to review showed the bleeding. “The patient was now with the neurosurgeons, getting the blood drained from inside the skull.”

The experience, Dr. Ofri says, left her “mortified” by her negligence. “I stumbled through the day, an acrid mix of shame and guilt churning inside me.”

Dr. Ofri’s mistake, luckily, was caught by an attending doctor on the ward who consulted with a radiologist at the hospital who discovered the bleed. A “near miss” had been avoided. “Near miss” is medical slang for a disastrous incident that might have happened but was somehow prevented.

A 2006 report, Dr. Ofri wrote, said that medication errors alone injure about a million and a half patients a year. The doctor laments the few number of doctors who come forward to admit errors or near misses that are held back by shame and guilt.

In a June 5 follow up to her op-ed piece, Dr. Ofri writes that to deal with the shame, and possibly prevent similar mistakes by other physicians, “apology laws” should be enacted, that allow health care providers to talk to patients and families after an unforeseen outcome, without fearing litigation based solely on that conversation.

Since the University of Michigan adopted an apology program, she writes, the resulting improvement in doctor-patient communication has cut litigation costs in half. Thirty-six states have enacted apology laws.

Enhanced communication between doctors and patients has led to lower costs because of malpractice cases, such as at the University of Michigan. Malpractice cases there dropped from 262 in August 2001 to 83 in August 2007. But, injured patients and families still have the right to file medical malpractice claims to seek compensation for medical expenses as well as other financial and emotional damages.

As medical malpractice lawyers, Kelly & West represents patients and families affected by medical mistakes in Raleigh and across the state of North Carolina. To speak with a Raleigh medical malpractice attorney about your circumstances, please contact our office today.

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