Good Results for Medical Error Disclosure, Apology Programs

October 10, 2012

Though full disclosure and apology for medical errors is daunting for physicians, some say it’s the best step to take.

Full disclosure of medical errors, and even apologizing for such errors, is becoming a more common policy at many practices and health systems across the country.

In fact, a recently passed Massachusetts law is the first ever law to enable a disclosure, apology, and offer (DA&O) program across different practice environments and insurance arrangements.

Still, though DA&O is becoming a more mainstream approach, it remains a scary step for many physicians to take after a medical error is made - and understandably so.

“It’s scary because they’ve been told to do the exact opposite for so long - not to say anything, not to talk,” Doug Wojcieszak, founder of Sorry Works!, a full disclosure and apology advocacy organization of doctors, lawyers, insurers, and patient advocates, told Physicians Practice.

The problem is that saying nothing can actually do more harm than good, said Wojcieszak , who lost a brother due to medical errors more than a decade ago
“If you’re really scared about litigation, the worst thing you can do is run away from me, the patient, the family,” he said. “When you say you’re sorry, when you try to stay connected, and if God forbid you made a mistake and you truly apologize and try to fix it - it works.”

That’s because the majority of patients sue because they’re angry, not because they’re greedy. 

“They’re upset, they put their trust and faith in a healthcare professional or healthcare organization and things didn’t turn out right,” said Wojcieszak. “When the doctor runs away, that only exacerbates their anger and frustration.”

Still not convinced that disclosure and apology works? Many organizations that have embraced such programs report positive results.

The University of Michigan Health System, for instance, was an early adopter of a DA&O program in 2002. It says the program cut litigation costs by $2 million a year and caused new claims to fall by more than 40 percent, according to American Medical News.

Stanford University School of Medicine, which implemented its program in 2007, also reports favorable results, according to American Medical News. Its hospitals and clinics have saved $3.2 million in annual premiums, according to a 2011 Institute for Healthcare Improvement report.

“People who are actually looking at the numbers, dealing with claims - they’ll say it’s working,” said Wojcieszak. 

If you’re interested in learning more about disclosure and apology or forming such a program at your practice, consider speaking with an attorney and/or asking your malpractice insurer for guidance.

“Ten years ago the insurance company would have said, ‘Shut up and don’t say a darn thing to the family; don’t return phone calls; don’t talk to them; don’t e-mail; don’t do anything - just call us and we’ll handle it for now,’” said Wojcieszak. “Now insurance companies are telling doctors and nurses much different advice, and they have resources to help them talk and stay connected.”

Stay tuned. We’ll catch up with Wojcieszak at the MGMA12 Conference in San Antonio to hear some of his recommendations for how physicians go about disclosing and apologizing for medical errors.