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Study: Offering apology in patient injury cases doesn’t lead to increase in lawsuits

Sometimes a simple apology can go a long way — even in the doctor-patient relationship.

Stanford Health Policy’s Michelle Mello, JD, PhD, has new research out that indicates when hospitals give patients a straightforward explanation for what went wrong during a surgery or stay — followed by an apology and a plan for how they’re going to do better — they could prevent an increase in medical malpractice lawsuits and improve patient safety.

“In these programs, hospitals scrutinize every serious harm event to answer the question, 'What can we learn?’” Mello told me. “Traditionally, a risk manager’s focus has been on the patients who complaint about the care or threaten to sue. But every patient deserves to know that what happened to them is being taken seriously.”

Mello published her findings in the October issue of Health Affairs.

Medical injuries are a leading cause of death in the United States. The lawsuits they spawn are also a major concern for physicians and health care facilities. So hospital risk managers and liability insurers are experimenting with new approaches to resolving these disputes that channel them away from litigation.

The focus is on meeting patients’ needs without requiring them to sue. Hospitals disclose accidents to patients, investigate and explain why they occurred, apologize and, in cases in which the harm was due to a medical error, offer compensation and reassurance that steps will be taken to keep it from happening again.

The study reports on the outcome of a so-called communication-and-resolution program at two large Massachusetts hospital systems. Mello and her co-authors found that the program not only yielded positive results in terms of liability costs but also led to significant patient safety improvements.

Despite concerns that telling patients about errors and proactively offering compensation could cause liability costs to skyrocket, of the 989 adverse events reviewed for the study from 2013 to 2015, only 5 percent led to malpractice claims or lawsuits. And when the program did lead to compensation, the median payment was $75,000. By comparison, the median payment nationwide in 2015 when plaintiffs prevailed in malpractice lawsuits was about $225,000, Mello noted.

“Our findings suggest that communication-and-resolution programs will not lead to higher liability costs when hospitals adhere to their commitment to offer compensation proactively,” the authors wrote.

Previously: Medical malpractice reform likely back on table and Small number of physicians account for many malpractice claims
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