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Can an apology avert litigation?

Imagine the horror if you went into the hospital for a routine medical procedure ... and left there a quadriplegic due to a surgical error. That was the reality for one retired policeman from Baltimore.

But then something out of the ordinary happened. Instead of dodging responsibility and stonewalling the patient, his surgeon instead sat down with him and detailed exactly what went wrong with the surgery. Then, perhaps even more astonishing, the doctor apologized to his patient for his mistake.

The hospital then paid all the patient's rehabilitation costs, bought him a wheelchair that cost $45,000 and a wheelchair-accessible van to get around. They also paid the salaries of a home-care nurse and case manager and threw in an additional $15k for other medical expenses.

Without ever litigating the case, the facility's attorneys negotiated a confidential settlement with the patient and his family. The patient's brother — a malpractice attorney — was baffled at the approach the hospital took but advised his brother to accept it as long as he continued to receive what he needed.

Why this approach?

Most medical facilities, doctors and nurses typically do not admit fault and apologize for the errors they cause to their patients seeking treatment. Encouraged by corporate counsel in many cases, they meet patient inquiries with a "white wall" of silence.

What typically happens next is that the patients retain their own attorneys to file lawsuits alleging malpractice. When patients prevail, the defendants are responsible for paying large sums of money — in addition to six- and even seven-figure legal bills.

Apologies part of accountability

Medicine is far from an exact science, and many things can go wrong even during the most routine of operations. Patients accept this when they sign consent forms prior to going under the knife. But some doctor errors fall outside the spectrum of conceivable outcomes, often due to negligence.

Many patients would likely appreciate the transparency and honesty that an apology could bring. While patients may still seek financial damages, as in the aforementioned case, hospitals and their insurers could still save money by avoiding costs associated with litigation.

Exercise all your options after medical mistakes

To be sure, even the most heartfelt of apologies cannot wipe away the consequences patients face after their medical providers make egregious mistakes. But that is not the intended purpose of an apology. Instead, the apology acknowledges the physician accepts responsibility for their patient's worsened condition and opens the door to reparations — which might avert a lawsuit.

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