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Apologies pave the way to more transparency

"The willingness of doctors at several major medical centers to apologize to patients for harmful errors is a promising step toward improving the quality of a medical system that kills tens of thousands of patients a year inadvertently."

An interesting NYT editorial discusses the recent move by a handful of prominent academic centers in adopting a new policy that promptly discloses errors--offering earnest apologies and fair compensation instead of tight lips fearing litigation and increased liability.

"For years, experts have lamented that medical malpractice litigation is an inefficient way to deter lethal or damaging medical errors. Most victims of malpractice never sue, and there is some evidence that many patients who do sue were not harmed by a physician’s error but instead suffered an adverse medical outcome that could not have been prevented. The details of what went wrong are often kept secret as part of a settlement agreement.

Now, a handful of prominent academic medical centers have adopted a new policy of promptly disclosing errors, offering earnest apologies and providing fair compensation. It appears to satisfy many patients, reduce legal costs and the litigation burden and, in some instances, helps reduce malpractice premiums."

So far the response to more transparency and honesty from those that have suffered has been encouraging. At the University of Illinois, out of 37 cases where the hospital acknowledged and apologized over preventable medical errors, only one patient filed suit. At the University of Michigan Health System, existing claims and lawsuits fell dramatically from 263 in August 2001 to 83 in August 2007--with legal costs falling by two-thirds.

As the writer astutely hits on, "Admitting errors is only the first step toward reforming the health care system so that far fewer mistakes are made. But reforms can be more effective if doctors are candid about how they went astray."

Patients have always deserved honesty; and indeed transparency is a step in the right direction. But it's not the solution. What transparency does is to pave the way to openly acknowledging that there are real problems that have led to a full-on epidemic of preventable medical errors.

Now it's up to hospitals, patient safety organizations, federal agencies and innovative companies to work together in developing and implementing the practices, protocols and technologies that will move the standard of care to new heights while moving the numbers of mistakes--and needed apologies--way down.

Full article located here.

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