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Research Institute: Apologizing for Medical Errors

The latest risk management theory holds that physicians can lower their risk of being sued for medical malpractice by apologizing to patients for medical errors. Unfortunately, the idea is both counterintuitive and inconsistent with the medical literature.

The only study which ever evaluated this approach found that it increased the number of legal claims. Fortunately, the study was conducted within the legally sheltered confines of the VA system and the facility did not lose a significant amount of money. However, a Harvard School of Public Health study estimated that, outside of the VA system, the approach would quickly bankrupt the medical malpractice system.

Not surprisingly, because it will generate more lawsuits and increased revenue, trial lawyers strongly support the concept of apologizing for medical errors. And, they have used their political influence to promote the concept as a viable alternative to actual tort reform. Along the way, large numbers of persons in the risk management community have been misled, and they now unknowingly recommend apologizing for errors as a viable way of reducing lawsuits.  

Kraman SS, Hamm G.
Risk Management: Extreme honesty may be the best policy.
Ann Intern Med. 1999;131:963-967.

Studdert DM, Mello MM, Gawande AA, Brennan TA, Wang YC.
Disclosure Of Medical Injury To Patients: An Improbable Risk Management Strategy.
Health Aff. 2007;26(1):215–226.

Medical-legal education with a passion for medicine and compassion for patients.