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Can 'I'm sorry' really make a difference in a malpractice case?

After a 59-year-old woman had a hysterectomy in 2007, she didn't go home the next day as she thought she would. Instead, she was in a coma for several weeks and had to have an additional five surgeries. When she began seeking answers for what went wrong, she couldn't get answers. She would hear the surgeon and hospital personnel say, "things didn't go well." The woman, who is a professor of nursing and an attorney, was determined to find out what went wrong -- "even if it takes the rest of [her] life."

A retired police officer went to the hospital to have disk replacement surgery after he suffered very serious spinal cord injury. He was immediately told after surgery what had happened and the surgeon apologized. The man's medical expenses and rehabilitation costs were paid by the hospital. He also received an undisclosed amount in compensation.

Unfortunately, patients who suffer from a medical error or negligence are most often treated like the woman nowadays. That line of thinking, though -- "deny and defend" -- is slowly giving way to medical facilities and their staff offering prompt apologies and disclosure, as well as compensation for mistakes.

Medical errors are the third-leading cause of death in the U.S., according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University. The federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, which is also called CANDOR for Communication and Optimal Resolution, tested this approach in 14 hospitals. The results were not quite what was expected. The number of medical malpractice lawsuits were cut in half. In Michigan alone, the hospital system saved around $2 million in litigation costs in just the first year after the new model was put in place.

Only about 2 percent of patients who are harmed by medical errors actually file suit against the hospital. There is still a lot of resistance to changing how these errors are taken care of. Lawyers, insurers and doctors can't bill for as many hours when a potential lawsuit is settled quickly.

It's been about three decades since a doctor started the disclosure program by apologizing to a patient. That case involved the death of a woman from a massive dose of potassium in 1987 at a Veteran's Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky. That hospital still handles similar cases in the same fashion today.

If you have suffered because of a medical error, an attorney can provide more information on your legal options, including accepting an apology and compensation.

Source:, "Two Words Can Soothe Patients Who Have Been Harmed: We're Sorry," Sandra G. Boodman, March 15, 2017

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