Disclosure Means Fewer Lawsuits

A recent New York Times article discusses how doctors, patients and lawyers are discovering that apologizing for medical errors often helps both doctor and patient. The patient gets closure and a sense of acknowledgment, and will receive a settlement more quickly. The doctor does not have to suffer the psychological pressure of denying any wrongdoing or cutting off contact with the patient and can avoid a lawsuit.

As the article notes, conventional wisdom has long held that a doctor should say absolutely nothing in the event of a medical error. Disclosure, it was believed, would only make the doctor and the hospital liable. But empirical evidence suggests otherwise:

Despite some projections that disclosure would prompt a flood of lawsuits, hospitals are reporting decreases in their caseloads and savings in legal costs. Malpractice premiums have declined in some instances, though market forces may be partly responsible.

At the University of Michigan Health System, one of the first to experiment with full disclosure, existing claims and lawsuits dropped to 83 in August 2007 from 262 in August 2001, said Richard C. Boothman, the medical center’s chief risk officer.

“Improving patient safety and patient communication is more likely to cure the malpractice crisis than defensiveness and denial,” Mr. Boothman said.

What most patients want in these cases is not the largest settlement possible but some sort of acknowledgment, honesty and respect. And doctors, hospitals and patients all want to settle these matters quickly without long, drawn-out courtroom battles. Full disclosure policies are a promising new way of achieving these goals.

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