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Study Says Admitting Mistakes Cuts Lawsuits

August 17, 2010
Written by: , Filed in: Medical Ethics, Practice Management
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In 2001, the University of Michigan Health System began actively seeking out its own medical errors, fully disclosing such errors to patients, and offering compensation when the health system was at fault.

Since that time, lawsuits and new claims for compensation have decreased, claims are being resolved more quickly, and liability costs have gone down. The findings are detailed in a study published today in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

“The need for full disclosure of harmful medical errors is driven by both ethics and patient-safety concerns,” said lead author Allen Kachalia, MD, JD, as quoted in a University of Michigan Health System news release. “However, because of fears that disclosing every medical error may lead to more malpractice claims and costs, disclosure may not happen as often and consistently as we would hope.”

Dr. Kachalia is medical director of quality and safety for Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

The researchers reviewed claims from 1995 to 2007. They cautioned that the study could not establish causality, that malpractice claims generally declined in Michigan during the latter part of the study period, and that the findings might not necessarily apply to a differently structured health system. Still, Dr. Kachalia said:

We found a 61 percent decrease in spending at the UMHS on legal defense costs, and this supports the possibility that patients may be less likely to file lawsuits when given prompt transparency and an offer of compensation.

Richard C. Boothman, JD, chief risk officer at the University of Michigan and a coauthor of the study, said that patient safety, and not reduced costs, was the main reason for the health system’s policy.

“”We cannot improve if we’re not honest about mistakes,” he said. “By engaging the patient early—and mostly listening more than talking at first—we get a fuller view of what happened, a better view of what it looked like to the patient, facts that may not be apparent from the chart alone. Engaging patients and families early, even before we have reached our own conclusions, allows us to get a more accurate view of what happened and provides the opportunity to correct any misimpressions and misunderstandings for everyone concerned.”

We can’t help but think about yesterday’s post, which detailed a $6.2 million judgment against a Florida hospital for the death of a patient during a CT scan. The patient’s widow said that the hospital was deceitful with her, that it lost some of the records relating to the case, and that she finally had to sue to find out what happened to her husband.

Apparently, Mom was right: when you make a mistake, you should say, “I’m sorry.”

Related seminar: The Business of Radiology


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