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Study: Explanations and apologies can reduce malpractice cases

Your doctor (or another medical professional) made a mistake. You're not sure yet what the long-term consequences will be to your health and haven't decided whether or not to take legal action. However, to add insult to injury — literally — no one has fully explained what happened or apologized.

Many who work in the health care field believe that by apologizing for an error, whether it's a misdiagnosis, a sponge left in a surgical patient or incorrect instructions provided with a prescription drug, they increase their liability potential. They may believe it's better to say as little as possible, even if that means leaving patients and families in the dark about what happened. However, research showed that the opposite is true.

In the study, a Georgia State University (GSU) professor and an Atlanta anesthesiologist led a team that looked at a communication and resolution program (CRP) used by a hospital system in Tennessee. In studying data from 2004 through 2015, researchers found that when the CRP protocol was used, there was a drop in legal claims and costs, as well as a shorter time interval for resolving cases. The protocol includes explaining medical errors to patients and offering apologies for the resulting damages.

The study found that 43 percent of cases were resolved with just an apology. No legal action was taken by patients, even though 60 percent of them had already retained attorneys.

The results so impressed the doctor who heads the Medical Association of Georgia (MAG) that he asked the American Medical Association (AMA) to endorse the CRP protocol as one means of resolving medical malpractice complaints. The AMA subsequently did so.

The Atlanta anesthesiologist involved in the study said, "This protocol, in contrast to the ‘deny and defend' legal approach to medical error…empower[s] everyone to communicate openly and transparently about what went wrong and to focus quickly on how such episodes can be prevented in the future."

Of course, many medical errors can't be resolved with an apology. Further, many physicians and other health care providers will continue to act based solely on their interests and fears. Nonetheless, if medical professionals are open and honest when things go wrong, patients, families and their attorneys can make better-informed decisions about whether legal action is the best route to take.

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