Saying "I'm Sorry" Really Does Help

There has been much media attention paid to doctors' reluctance to admit their mistakes and apologize. While there may be many reasons for such reluctance, anecdotal evidence and experts suggest that change is in the wind.

In a recent Washington Post article, a doctor related an old story of when he "proceeded to nearly kill a patient" during his residency at a New York City hospital. His story emphasized the feelings of humiliation and shame he felt for making a mistake as the main reasons why doctors are loath to admit error.

According to Jo Shapiro, M.D., chief of otolaryngology and director of the Center for Professionalism and Peer Support at the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Massachusetts, fear, guilt and embarrassment are just a few of the emotions doctors feel after committing an error. She said that doctors are often ashamed that they have hurt someone when they are trained to help people. Even more, to many doctors, acknowledging responsibility for a negative outcome exposes them to litigation and can jeopardize their career.

However, 35 states now have laws offering some form of legal protection for doctors who express regret or empathy to patients without limiting the patient's right to recover for medical errors. In addition, a group of prominent medical centers now have policies that encourage prompt disclosure and apology for mistakes. Providers who have taken this approach are experiencing striking results.

For example, in 2002, the University of Michigan Health System instituted a disclosure, apology and compensation policy that has cut its litigation costs by $2 million per year and new malpractice claims by more than 40 percent.

Other medical centers that have adopted so-called "I'm sorry" policies include:

  • Stanford University
  • Johns Hopkins University
  • Harvard University
  • Kaiser Permanente
  • Catholic Healthcare West
  • Children's Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota

By disclosing medical errors, offering earnest apologies and paying fair compensation to harmed patients, providers who admit and take responsibility for their mistakes can restore integrity to patient relations and learn from errors to prevent harm to future patients.

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