Healthcare News & Insights

No. 1 way for hospitals to prevent malpractice lawsuits

Malpractice lawsuits can be costly for a hospital in several ways. Not only can they hurt your wallet, they also negatively affect your reputation, which can cause harm for years down the line. But two simple words may prevent many malpractice cases against hospitals: “I’m sorry.” 

ThinkstockPhotos-76801640A recent article from CNN discusses just how important it is for patients and their families to hear an apology after experiencing complications from a medical error.

If providers are distant or unwilling to provide an explanation for mistakes, patients feel abandoned and are more likely to take their grievances to court.

According to CNN, many hospitals and providers are currently moving away from the traditional “deny and defend” approach, opting instead to “acknowledge and apologize” – and with good reason.

Patients who feel as though providers genuinely care about the consequences of their actions are more open to negotiating an out-of-court settlement. And facilities are taking huge chances if they allow a patient’s malpractice case to go to trial. Medical malpractice payouts reached over $3.9 billion in 2014, the most recent year for which numbers were available.

Legislation is making apologies more favorable for facilities. Right now, 36 states have laws in place where a provider’s apology won’t have negative consequences should a lawsuit arise afterward. So a swift apology after an adverse event is fast becoming the norm for hospitals.

PEARLs of wisdom

Putting a specific program in place to acknowledge and address adverse events that cause patients harm can make a big difference in how many lawsuits a hospital encounters.

In 2009, Stanford Children’s Health created the Process for Early Assessment and Resolution of Loss (PEARL). Per its website, the program is designed to openly communicate with patients who believe they’ve experienced problems with their medical care that could’ve been prevented.

Patients have responded well to Stanford’s efforts. After six years, the amount of money the hospital has paid to compensate patients for medical errors went down by 27%. In addition, its costs for defending lawsuits decreased by 24%.

In one specific case discussed in the CNN article involving the death of a toddler due to a disabled alarm, Stanford addressed what went wrong by:

  • giving the patient’s mother a full apology right away
  • explaining exactly how the mistake happened, and
  • involving the parent in the steps it took to prevent a similar tragedy.

The mother, Leilani Schweitzer, took Stanford’s settlement, and she was so impressed with how the hospital handled the situation that she ended up working with the PEARL program – first as a consultant, and currently as assistant vice president for communication and resolution.

Best strategy for apologies

Even if hospitals don’t have similar formal programs in place, a simple, genuine apology goes a long way toward building bridges after an adverse event causes injury or death.

According to an article in Physicians Practice (registration required), the best apologies are:

  • sincere
  • empathetic, and
  • indicate mutual disappointment for the error.

Providers must not only admit they’re apologetic about the outcome, but they must also let each patient (or family member) know they’re sorry for the grief and anger the person is feeling.

After apologizing, it’s important to express the hospital’s commitment to preventing the error from happening again, including a discussion of any follow-up actions that will be taken. It’s a good idea to involve patients in the follow-up process, allowing them to give feedback and updating them about any resolutions.

And, most importantly, hospitals shouldn’t forget about addressing the patient’s immediate needs. Waiting to tackle these concerns until after an investigation’s been launched – or not addressing them at all – can make patients feel neglected and alienated, which often leads to talks with lawyers.

Ultimately, after an error occurs, a hospital’s best bet is to offer an apology that acknowledges the patient’s feelings and needs, while making the person feel engaged in the resolution process.

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