The Road to Medical Reform: For the Patients, or For the Money?

Here’s a standard case: doctor diagnoses patient, patient goes in for surgery, comes out and something goes wrong, doctor can’t do anything else, patient sues for malpractice.shutterstock_566158948

This is a tough situation, right? The patient has been harmed by a treatment that should have helped them heal, and the doctor or hospital is being attacked for recommending and practicing the best course of treatment. The patient needs the money from the lawsuit to survive, but the doctor needs his or her reputation in tact to continue practicing medicine. Who is at fault? Who needs the most protection?

In the past several years, the relationship between doctor and patient has been inherently antagonistic in many states. But in the past several months, Massachusetts has set forth a new plan aimed, at least on the surface, at crossing the divide between the two parties. In short, Massachusetts has proposed that doctors apologize for their errors.

Medical apology is revolutionary to many. Conventional wisdom in the medical world says that if a doctor apologizes for error, he or she puts himself at greater risk of malpractice lawsuits, because the doctor is admitting legal liability. So stand your ground and don’t apologize.

Psychologically, however, apologies work wonders for both parties. In an article from 2002, in Psychology Today:

Apology is not just a social nicety. It is an important ritual, a way of showing respect and empathy for the wronged person. It is also a way of acknowledging an act that, if otherwise left unnoticed, might compromise the relationship. Apology has the ability to disarm others of their anger and to prevent further misunderstandings. While an apology cannot undo harmful past actions, if done sincerely and effectively, it can undo the negative effects of those actions.

From a psychological perspective, if a doctor apologizes, that simple action can help the patient let go of their anger and move toward recovery much faster. And ultimately, doctors want their patients to heal.

An article in the Boston Globe testifies to this very phenomenon. Dr. J. David Blaha, professor of orthopedic surgery at the University of Michigan, has been apologizing to patients for years. The University of Michigan, ten years ago, put in a large-scale medical apology program, insisting that staff discuss errors, offer an apology, and move toward monetary settlement when appropriate. Blaha himself has worked closely with patients to not only apologize, but discuss what went wrong. From the Boston Globe:

“At the end of the day, he’s satisfied. I’m satisfied,” said Blaha, who sits on the hospital’s medical liability review committee, which provides advice to hospital attorneys about whether a patient’s care was appropriate. The committee also reviews cases in which patients fall, receive the wrong medication, or experience other errors, to look for ways to avoid such events in the future.

But, this new initiative has many critics. One of the most vocal is Gabriel H. Teninbaum, who states that the Massachusetts initiative in particular is not aimed at patient well-being, but at saving money. He says in an article:

The road map determined that, to gain acceptance, it must “emphasize that the motive . . . is to support patients and provide safer care, not save money.” Yet, when the designers of the program were asked by researchers what was appealing to them about it, only 37 percent said because it “serves patients’ needs better.” By contrast, 74 percent said it was appealing because it would “reduce legal costs/risk.” Put differently, it’s about money, not patients; except when the press is asking. Then, it’s about patients, not money.

By settling early, the monetary compensation awarded to patients is reduced, which means patients may not receive all the money they need to survive. Not only that, but the case never goes to court, and is never publicized, so hospitals can more easily cover up the malpractice, as well as save on lawyers’ fees.

In a podcast for the Legal Talk Network, Teninbaum elaborates with a story from the famous University of Michigan. A woman was misdiagnosed for several months before doctors discovered she had breast cancer. The hospital estimated that she would request up to $3 million, so they brought her in and apologized to her. She was considering suing for $2 million, and rather than agree on that sum, the hospital used the apology, and her newfound good will toward them, as leverage to negotiate her compensation to under $1 million, and no lawyers were involved.

Without legal counsel, patients can become easy prey for hospitals, which in the current economic crisis are trying to find more and more ways to save money.

While not all doctors and hospitals are out to manipulate patients out of legal settlements, many could misuse this practice simply for the sake of cutting costs. If you or a loved one have been injured by a prescribed course of treatment, the experienced lawyers at Strom Law, LLC can help. Our staff has worked with many clients on medical malpractice suits, and can get you the help you need. Even if you choose not to retain us as your attorneys, it is important to get a “second opinion.” Please contact us today for a free consultation. We can help you on the road to recovery.



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