Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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November 13, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

PHYSICIAN, HEAL THYSELF....Here's an interesting story from AP's Lindsey Tanner:

Some malpractice-overhaul advocates say an apology can help doctors avoid getting sued, especially when combined with an upfront settlement offer.

....Doctors' often-paternalistic relationship with patients is giving way to an understanding that ''it's OK to tell the patient the whole story," said Dr. Paul Barach, an anesthesiologist and patient safety researcher at the University of Miami. It is ''a huge sea change as far as our relationships with patients."

The hospitals in the University of Michigan Health System have been encouraging doctors since 2002 to apologize for mistakes. The system's annual attorney fees have since dropped from $3 million to $1 million, and malpractice lawsuits and notices of intent to sue have fallen from 262 filed in 2001 to about 130 per year, said Rick Boothman, a former trial attorney who launched the practice there.

Typically, of course, doctors are specifically instructed not to apologize for mistakes since that's an implict admission of guilt that could be used against them in court.

But my instinct is that Barach is right, and this is a self-defeating strategy. I suspect that most people are more than willing to accept that doctors are human beings who make human mistakes, but only if doctors start acting like human beings and treating their patients like intelligent adults and the medical/insurance industry starts admitting that mistreated patients really do deserve compensation. Although the actual damage done is obviously part of the story in malpractice cases, real rage seems to come into play only after victims have been ignored, shuffled around like case numbers, and generally treated like lepers who are obviously lying in hopes of an undeserved payout. Then they get mad, and that's when the lawyers start circling.

(For example, it's worth noting that in the infamous McDonald's coffee case, Stella Liebeck initially asked only for McDonald's to cover the cost of the skin grafts she needed after the scalding coffee spilled in her lap. She didn't get mad until they blew her off, and it was McDonald's' "callous" behavior that prompted the jury to award her a couple of million bucks.)

This is obviously not a comprehensive answer to America's malpractice problems, but it's a good start. And besides, I'll bet that acting like a human being and treating patients likewise has a whole bunch of other benefits too. It's gotta be worth a try.

Kevin Drum 3:16 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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