Honesty After Medical Errors

When a doctor makes a mistake and a patient is harmed, what protections exist to make sure the patient knows what happened? Many hospitals once maintained policies of providing vague, unhelpful responses when patients or their family members asked questions after a medical error occurred. More and more doctors are now being encouraged to be upfront about mistakes. Hospital policies are also slowly adapting to the idea that disclosing an error is the right thing to do. That does not mean that injured patients are always getting the help they need.

The current national standard for informing patients requires that patients be told of all the outcomes of their care, including so-called “unanticipated outcomes.” That policy was first put into place in 2001. A group of Harvard-affiliated hospitals enacted a policy in 2006 that suggested medical providers take responsibility for all outcomes of care given, apologize for mistakes, and discuss preventive measures. The last item simply means that patients would be told how similar errors would be prevented in the future.

Regardless of how errors are handled by the hospital, it is clear that the majority of medical mistakes do not lead to lawsuits. According to a 2012 study, patients are generally reluctant to formally report medical errors. They feel inclined to put medical errors behind them and focus on the future. Unfortunately, this attitude increases the likelihood that hospitals will fail to address sloppy work and that more patients will be harmed as a result.

The new disclosure policies instituted by many health institutions have generally led to a reduction in litigation expenses. They have not, however, led to an improvement in the quality of the care given at a facility. Errors need to be addressed to protect patient health. More needs to be done to force hospitals to address the huge number of errors that lead to injury and death for thousands of patients every year.

Source: The Washington Post, “Medical errors are hard for doctors to admit, but it’s wise to apologize to patients,” by Majoj Jain, 24 May 2013