Disclosure of medical errors along with an apology may lead to fewer lawsuits

Unhappy female patient and doctor
Hospitals that disclose and apologize for medical errors may reduce a patients' likelihood of suing them for malpractice, but such programs face opposition from physicians, liability insurers and attorneys. (Photo Credit: Getty/AlexRaths)

Hospital leaders and clinicians who own up to mistakes and work with patients after medical errors occur may actually avoid lawsuits.

The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality developed a strategy for hospitals and its Communication and Optimal Resolution (CANDOR) toolkit has been adapted in multiple hospitals across the country. The toolkit was built on a long-standing program at the University of Michigan (UM), which cut the number of malpractice lawsuits in half and saved about $2 million in litigation costs in the first year of the program, according to an article from The Washington Post published in partnership with Kaiser Health News.

Richard Boothman, UM’s executive director of clinical safety and chief risk officer who launched UM's reporting programs, said hospitals must "normalize honesty" to reduce errors and improve the response when one does occur. Patient safety officers and risk management staff need to meet in the middle more frequently to discuss medical mistakes as well, he said.

“The whole point of this isn’t to drop malpractice costs, it’s to drive patient safety,” Boothman told the publications. “We need to hard-wire as quickly as possible the lessons of these cases.”

RELATED: 5 ways for hospitals to reduce—not make excuses for—medical errors

Reforms to the way the healthcare industry handles medical errors have been at the forefront following research suggesting that medical mistakes are the third-leading cause of death in the U.S., and cause more than 250,000 deaths a year, though those findings have been disputed.

Programs that seek to change the typical defensive approach often face strong opposition from physicians, insurers and attorneys, according to the article. Defense attorneys dislike that disclosure would lead to fewer billable hours, and some physicians fear that apologies will make patients more likely to sue in the event of a mistake, with the apology then used against them in court. Liability insurers are also mixed on the approach.

Legal experts also worry that disclosure protocols take power away from patients and put the hospital in full control of how patients handle the news. Proponents of the programs also worry that hospitals may use disclosure as a means to avoid unwinnable or small malpractice suits, according to the article.