The “white wall of silence” is a term that is sometimes used to refer to the perception that doctors usually will not talk about any mistakes that they, or another doctor, have made.
Even as children, we are taught that when we do something that hurts someone, we should apologize. Lawyers and insurers (that represent doctors) usually stopped that cold. Even when the mistake was clear, they were often discouraged from apologizing, just in case they were ever sued.
Times may be changing, albeit slowly. Hospitals and doctors are realizing that a full disclosure and a sincere apology can change everything.
University of Michigan Health System cut the number of pending lawsuits against its hospitals after adopting a full-disclosure policy in 2002. This change reduced the costs of defending against suits from an average of $65,000 per case, to $35,000 per case.
Saying “I’m sorry, this is what I did wrong…” also cut the time it took to resolve cases from three years to about a year.
Under the policy, a hospital investigates suspected errors, and sits down with the patient and the patient’s lawyer to review what happened. If the staff was found to have erred, they apologize and offer a settlement. If the treatment was not in error, the staff meets with the patient to explain why.
But it is working. Now, many trial lawyers in Michigan are not taking marginal medical malpractice cases because of the Health System’s reputation for fairness. Now they tend to believe that if the University of Michigan is saying, “We didn’t make a mistake,” they probably didn’t.
Dr. Jim Bagian, chief of patient safety for the VA explained that this policy has helped in his hospital system. ”Most of the time people sue, they don’t sue to collect damages,” Bagian said. ”They sue because they’re mad. They’re mad about how they were treated after the injury. People want you to admit there was a problem and [want to know] what are you going to do to make sure that it doesn’t happen to someone else.”
Pennsylvania now has a law that requires hospitals to notify patients within seven days if they made a serious error in their care. It has been their experience that patients don’t quickly sue doctors they like if they have been upfront with them.
However, I will be surprised to see this in Tennessee anytime soon. Instead of this, our TN legislators have capped the amount that a crippled patient may receive in a medical malpractice case!
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