Medical errors don't necessarily mean lawsuits: Patients want apologies, explanations

As healthcare turns toward a more patient-centered, value-based model, providers' approach to medical errors--the third leading cause of death in the U.S.--is also changing. Increasingly, the culture of secrecy that led to providers taking a "deny and defend" approach to medical errors is giving way to an "acknowledge and apologize" culture in which clinicians fully explain the mistake to the patient and then apologize for it, according to a CNN report. 

Unfortunately, Deborah Craven never received that apology after surgeons at Yale New Haven Hospital mistakenly removed the wrong rib during a 2015 surgery to remove a mass from her rib. In fact, her lawyer told CNN, they never explained how the mistake happened. Worse, Craven claims one of the doctors lied to her to cover up the error. Had they simply explained what happened and said "I'm sorry," she would never have sued, according to her lawyer. Meanwhile, she is still waiting for an explanation of why the surgeons operated on the wrong rib.

Patient advocates say that when patients feel listened to and understood, they are more likely to negotiate a settlement than launch a lawsuit that could end up costing their provider millions of dollars.

Leilani Schweitzer, who lost her toddler son due to a simple error by a nurse at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital in California, told CNN that most victims of medical errors do not want to sue because it is painful and costly.

In her situation, the hospital immediately gave her a full apology, explained exactly how the mistake occurred, made financial restitution and then went the extra step of involving Schweitzer in its effort to ensure that the same mistake didn't happen to other patients. Within six years, the hospital hired her as a consultant for a program for patients on how to reach a resolution in the wake of an error. It's a mistake to think that all patients who've been harmed by medical error are only interested in money, Schweitzer said.

Smart institutions will take pains to establish communication and institute programs of restitution toward victims rather than assuming their relationship will be one of enmity from the outset, according to the article.

Earlier this year, The Wall Street Journal reported that more hospitals around the country are adopting this new approach to coping with medical mistakes. One California hospital not only provides an apology and a full explanation of how the error occurred, it will also give patients a waiver so they don't have to pay their medical bills, and financial settlements as an alternative to costly lawsuits.  

To learn more:
- read the CNN report