A new movement involving physician apologies is being seen in which apologies are issued following errors involving medical treatment. Some tout this as a way to increase transparency; however, others wonder if the apologies are meant to discourage medical malpractice litigation.
So-called “Apology Laws” may be used to protect physicians who apologize for medical errors that lead to patient harm and losses. Critics in the medical, legal, and legislative areas “claim the laws are useless in stopping malpractice suits, and that by admitting mistakes, the laws may actually encourage legal action,” said Konstatntinos Papadiakis, MD, a surgeon at Boston Children’s Hospital. “Just because I said I’m sorry doesn’t mean you can’t sue me,” he adds, writes MassDevice.com.
In fact, apologies may actually increase litigation. Patients injured due to medical errors may not understand what caused those injuries, according to MedScape.com. Increased transparency may actually lead some patients to seek legal remedy for those injuries as other patients may accept the apologies without bringing a lawsuit, wrote MedScape.com.
Under today’s system, according to MedScape.com, patients who are injured due to medical malpractice or negligence have little recourse for compensation. If an apology reduces risks for malpractice claims against physicians, the burden of managing injuries and losses unfairly falls on patients and their families. Although the so-called apology laws may provide long-sought-for transparency, the movement might actually stall progress for patients who are injured, leaving them little or no recourse for their losses.
Even those who are in favor of apology laws acknowledge that such disclosure represents just one area of improvement to today’s system. Experts also say that apologies need to be given along with reasonable and fair financial settlements, according to MedScape.com, which is not what is happening today.
Meanwhile, according to previous studies, surgeons make thousands of errors annually in the United States. Many of these errors are described as “never events,” those mistakes that should never occur in medicine, including operating on the wrong patient, operating a the wrong body part, and leaving medical equipment inside patients’ bodies, according to The Wall Street Journal. Research suggests these serious medical errors occur with distressing regularity. In fact, the Joint Commission recently found that retained surgical items—sponges and other surgical implements, for example—left behind in surgery are not rare occurrences.
In 1999, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) published the famed “To Err Is Human” report, which found that some 98,000 people die each year over hospital errors, according to a prior Philly.com article. In 2010, the Office of Inspector General for Health and Human Services revealed that about 180,000 Medicare patients died due, in part, to inappropriate hospital care.
Also, a recent study, published in the Journal of Patient Safety, revealed that these numbers might be even higher and may involve 210,000-440,000 hospital patients annually who suffer from a preventable harm that contributed to their death, according to Philly.com. If the figures are accurate, medical errors would be the third leading cause of death in the United States, just behind cancer and heart disease.