According to NPR, researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine have found that apologies in the aftermath of medical or hospital errors, particularly those resulting in injury or infection, are extremely rare. In fact, out of all patients surveyed, only nine percent stated that the doctor’s office or medical facility openly admitted causing harm.
Most health care professionals were inclined to withhold information relating to medical mistakes and errors, and only disclose harm when they under pressure to do so. Apologies from medical providers to patients or their families were only given in about 11 percent of cases.
In addition, an estimated 30 percent reported having to pay an average of $14,024 out-of-pocket for harm caused by a medical professional.
Although the Journal of Patient Safety attributes at least 210,000 deaths in U.S. hospitals to medical mistakes, the question remains as to how beneficial or detrimental an apology from a medical provider may be. Some believe that when doctors apologize it lowers the risk of medical malpractice, while others maintain an apology is a clear admission of fault.
Doctors, Apologies and the Law Pertaining to Medical Malpractice
The American Medical Association’s Code of Medical Ethics states:
Apologies can bring about numerous emotional, psychological and financial benefits, not only to the patient who has been harmed, but to the doctor whose error may have caused the harm as well. A study mentioned in The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association found that many patients feel a sense of closure and relief after they receive an apology from their doctor.
When a doctor accepts responsibility for his or her error, and offers a sincere apology, patients tend to have a higher level of respect for the doctor and, in turn, are more willing to settle a med-mal claim quickly, and often for a lower amount.
When Doctors Apologize, Malpractice Lawsuits Are Less Likely
The Wall Street Journal even touted apologies as a tool for doctors to employ to avoid lawsuits. In many instances, having a doctor who is willing to own up to his or her errors may be all it takes to calm an injured patient’s anger. Most patients are so familiar with doctors and hospitals denying any mistakes or defending their actions, it is a relief when a medical professional shows compassion and is willing to communicate openly about what happened.
Contrary to what doctors, hospitals and health care providers have believed for many years, when doctors offer a sincere apology, it potentially reduces the risk of liability and offers both medical professionals and patients some closure.
- NPR: The 2 Things That Rarely Happen After A Medical Mistake
- American Medical Association: AMA Code of Medical Ethics: Opinion 8.121 – Ethical Responsibility to Study and Prevent Error and Harm
- The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association: Efficacy of a Physician’s Words of Empathy: An Overview of State Apology Laws
- Wall Street Journal: Doctors’ New Tool to Fight Lawsuits: Saying ‘I’m Sorry’
- Journal of Patient Safety: A New, Evidence-based Estimate of Patient Harms Associated with Hospice Care.