British Hospitals Doing Lots of Public Apologies
Every couple days I troll Google News looking for stories about disclosure, apology, etc. I usually type in searches such as "Apology for Medical Errors" or "Sorry for Medical Malpractice." I know, you can have alerts delivered automatically to your inbox, but I already receive enough alerts, e-offers, coupons, etc, and I am worried I will miss a good story among the clutter. So, I actively search for stories in Google News, and over the last couple months I have seen more and more articles about medical apologies from British healthcare. The British news articles usually begin with a sad story of death or injury, followed by details of an investigation, and often conclude with an apology from a health official. Moreover, these are real apologies -- at least on paper. The Brits don't hold back. "We deeply apologize for the errors that killed your loved one" or something to that effect, coupled with a promise to meet the financial needs of the patient or family as well as fix the mistakes so they don't happen to another patient. Sometimes the family reacts positively to the apology, other times they still express anger. Nevertheless, British hospitals are publicly sharing their mistakes and apologies through the news media.
I fully realize that critics and skeptics will say British healthcare is far different from American healthcare. It's government healthcare, after all! But you know what, the first American hospital to conduct disclosure was a VA hospital (i.e, the government) and the same criticisms and objections were leveled, and now look how far disclosure has come in the private healthcare system in this country. Sure, we still have a long way to go, but all the fears and objections to the VA's disclosure program have not held water. Private systems (hospitals and insurers) that have attempted disclosure report lower claims and litigation expenses, higher safety, and greater satisfaction among patients, families, and clinicians. No matter where patients receive care -- government, university, or private sector -- they want the same things when something goes wrong: Accountability and honesty.
One of the things holding us back, however, is the persistent perception of deny and defend among clinicians and consumers. Many docs and nurses (who have not been trained on disclosure) along with patients and families feel the only way to get justice post-event is to sue the bastards. Last week I wrote how hospitals responding to news stories of adverse medical events or litigation with "no comment" or hiding behind patient privacy feed the perception that litigation is the only way forward to grieving families. How do we break this cycle? Share our stories!
Every so often during my Google News searches I will find a story of an American Hospital publicly apologizing for a medical error. And you know what? I've never heard follow up stories of the hospital going bankrupt, or lawsuits spiking, or anything else negative following ones of these public apologies. Instead, what I hear is how reporters, attorneys, state officials, patient safety advocates, etc are really surprised and blown away by the honesty and candor of the hospital. It's a breath of fresh air. Moreover, it's hard to be angry (or stay angry) at someone who is saying "We screwed up, we are very sorry, and here is what we are going to do to fix the situation." PI lawyers and reporters feed on cover ups, not honest, contrite behavior.
Of course, the critics and skeptics will drone about how a news article admitting fault for medical errors will have people lined up around the block looking for an easy buck. I will admit there are people like this in our world -- greedy, eager to game the system, etc --- but these folks do NOT need a story on the 6pm news to attempt to try to take advantage of your hospital or medical practice. They're doing it already! And they should be met head on with the best legal defense. I want to reach the other 99% of your patient/family population --- the good folks -- who would never dream of suing a hospital, only want to receive healing and move on with their lives, but, oops, something goes wrong. We want these "good folks" to understand the door is open post-event....we want to hear about their problems and concerns, and we want to be pro-active post-event. We want patients and families to return to their doctor and hospital post-event. And we want these patients and families to answer the phone when the risk manager calls. We also want PI lawyers to understand the door is open post-event. The only way this is going to happen is to get the word out there, and the media (along with social media) should be part of your messaging campaign.