Study Supports Disclosure of Errors by Medical Professionals

A recent study of a major American university health care system has revealed that disclosure of errors to patients does not increase liability costs. The study, published in the August 17, 2010, issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine, considered 12 years of data from the University of Michigan Health System. Researchers found that average monthly liability costs decreased and resolution times became shorter after UMHS implemented a medical error disclosure program in 2001.

Obviously, a frank and expedient acknowledgement that a health care professional failed to provide acceptable care is a positive thing for the patient. In the aftermath of a surgical mistake, misdiagnosis or prescription error, a caregiver's confirmation that something went wrong can help a person suffering from ongoing pain or an unexplained side effect receive proper medical attention to remedy the condition.

But an atmosphere of disclosure also allows for a more prompt resolution of the legal aspects of medical malpractice. This includes first and foremost an assessment of the compensation due the patient or surviving family members when a failure to adhere to medical standards leads to prolonged illness, a birth injury, additional surgeries or a person's untimely death.

The Michigan disclosure model was championed by Richard C. Boothman, the chief risk officer at UMHS and one of the article's authors. He contends that patient safety was the foremost reason behind the policy of admitting medical mistakes. "You cannot fix a problem unless you admit you have one, so the sense of being honest about medical problems really starts there," he told the Journal of the American Medical Association. "The best medical management is not to make a mistake, and the second best is to not do it again."

Facing the Consequences: Broader Acceptance of Disclosure Initiatives Anticipated

The economic benefits of disclosure have also entered into the recent national health care debate. The U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) recently announced that it will issue grants through its Patient Safety and Medical Liability Initiative to support projects intended to evaluate and enhance patient safety and the use of civil liability to prosecute medical negligence.

The point is not just to focus on how cases are resolved via the legal system, but to emphasize the need to improve care. "The current system is frustrating for providers, patients, and families," Carolyn Clancy, MD, AHRQ director Clancy told JAMA. "Do efforts to improve communication between patients and physicians shorten the time frame from when a patient is harmed to actually getting compensated? And is care safer as a result?"

One project receiving AHRQ support is the University of Washington Medical Center's promotion of clear communication among health care workers, hospital administrators and insurance companies to bring mistakes to light instead of drawing a line in the sand. The project's goals are twofold: to improve safety for patients, but also to reduce medical malpractice liability costs.

Taking Legal Action to Fully Protect a Patient's Rights

One potential shortcoming of medical disclosure initiatives that are the brainchild of hospital administrators is that they also target their organization's bottom line. In the same way that a person involved in a motor vehicle accident should take a long look at any offer of settlement from an insurance company, medical malpractice victims must be vigilant about their current and future needs for compensation.

Another issue is the fact that sometimes a hospital or doctor's determination that no medical errors occurred will simply be wrong. Attorneys who are familiar with the full life cycle of personal injury claims - from record review to expert consultation to negotiation, trial and appeal - can advise patients of their prospects for recovery. Just as important, they can ensure that their clients consult with capable, independent physicians and specialists to assess the long-term medical implications of the harm they suffered.

But pathways to effective resolution of medical malpractice claims can help a family avoid the stress and uncertainty of a protracted dispute. By preparing a client's case with diligence, strategic insight and an awareness of all possible outcomes, the potential for meaningful compensation without undue delay is enhanced. Regardless of the road that a patient must ultimately travel in pursuit of fairness, medical malpractice law firms often provide a voice to clients on a contingent fee basis, alleviating a grieving family or suffering patient from advancing the cost of professional counsel and advocacy.