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Nick Avgerinos
Nick Avgerinos
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Slice of Humble Pie: Doctors may get Cash Bonus for an Apology

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Medical malpractice claims cause doctors far and wide to head for the hills. After all, nothing can put a dent in many years of hard work quite like a hard-wrought fight about who messed up what and why so-and-so is suffering the long-term consequences. Doctors are wary of the money involved with such a suit, as well as the ramifications for their reputations. In today’s technology-savvy society, the threat of a flag next to your professional credentials is a big concern.

On the flip side of the coin, patients have a right to know which doctors have a history of problems with patients. A doctor with multiple flags, for instance, is likely not your first choice for a big surgery. After all, the choice of a healthcare provider can be a matter of life and death. You have a right to know. Or, arguably, you should. But, given the private nature of medical information, it’s often hard to find out.

The fact of the matter is that injuries are hard to trace. The result? The contest can become not a quest for the truth, but a prize for storytelling. Why? Juries are made up of people like you and me, and we like a good story. The emotional pull of the story trumps all when facts are few and far between. That’s why communication is key between doctors and patients. More information leads to more just deserts. (Before I get e-mails informing me as to my misspelling of “just deserts,” rest assured that it is correct. Although pronounced like its delicious homonym, its spelling is like that of its arid counterpart. Some remember that dessert has two S’s like Strawberry Shortcake, so you can remember that the phrase “just deserts” has only one S like “deserve,” from which it derives. But I digress.)

As it stands, much talk of medical mistakes is left for translation by the law. So, there is a lot of settling. Translation: $$$. A recent study by the Department of Justice, however, suggests that the awards from cases that go to trial aren’t quite as big as you might think. In 2001, the last year studied by the DOJ, the median award was $422,000. In fact, analyzing data from the National Practitioner Data Bank, the median medical malpractice award has actually declined 8% since 1991, adjusting for inflation. For those who have to pay these sums, however, that’s still a pretty big chunk of change.

A recent New York Times editorial suggests, however, that there’s a simple solution to keeping your good name in the medical field. Admit your mistakes. That’s right, it’s time to eat a big slice of humble pie and fess up when something didn’t go well. Apparently, a handful of prominent medical centers are doing just that, and reaping substantial economic benefits. A simple “I’m sorry” or upfront offer of fair compensation, depending on the situation, decreases the chances that a claim will be brought, thereby eliminating the need for litigation. The Times offers some pretty staggering data. For instance, at the University of Illinois, of 37 cases where the hospital acknowledged a preventable error and apologized, only 1 patient brought suit.

In a world where many are discouraged against bringing “frivolous” lawsuits, this is a significant step in the right direction. Once you or your family suffers an injury, the cases no longer seem frivolous. Patients deserve accurate information regarding their treatment and the dignity that an upfront apology affords. As attorney Brooks Schuelke recently recognized, it’s important to recognize the gravity of many injuries suffered.

Dennis Quaid addressed Congress regarding this problem quite eloquently: “Like many Americans, I believed that a big problem in our country was frivolous lawsuits. But now I know that the courts are often the only path to justice for families that are harmed by the pharmaceutical industry and medical errors. Yet the law is stacked against ordinary people.” The sweet simplicity of “I’m sorry” offers a hallmark of humanity in the otherwise heavily bureaucratized world of medicine.