Health service providers learning to apologize

By Tom Fortner • Published: April 26th, 2007
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Sorry seems to be the hardest word.

That’s not just the title of a popular song. Until recently, it was the mantra of the health-care industry. Many doctors, nurses and hospitals were loathe to admit a medical mistake, for fear that injured patients or their families might sue.

But that unfortunate tradition, sometimes referred to as defend and deny, is changing. A major impetus was the 2002 report by the Institute of Medicine that, for the first time, quantified the magnitude of deaths that result from medical errors each year in the United States at nearly one-hundred-thousand.

To their credit, hospitals and health-care workers recognized that the only way to reduce errors and improve the quality of patient care was to get mistakes out in the open so that the underlying causes could be understood and corrected.

Now they’re going a step further. They’re apologizing. Up front. Not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s a proven way to lower malpractice costs. For example, after adopting a policy of disclosing errors to patients and offering an apology, one large medical center reduced its number of pending malpractice claims by sixty percent over a six-year period and cut its average legal expense per case by half.

Keep in mind that this practice is still the exception, and it will take time for ingrained habits to change. But after years of the same old song and dance of denial, sorry seems to be a refreshing new tune.