Is saying nothing after adverse medical events the best policy?

In this age of medical litigation, if an unexpected adverse health outcome occurs, insurance companies and hospital lawyers often direct clinicians to say absolutely nothing to the patient or family. But is this really the best course of action? 

Silent treatment from health-care providers after an adverse health outcome generally stems from the fear that any acknowledgement of error on the part of the medical establishment is an admission of guilt that could lead to a medical malpractice lawsuit.  

But to those affected, this wall of silence often seems like proof of guilt. In these cases, patients and their families are often left wondering what really happened. Many feel abandoned by their health-care provider during an already stressful time. It is understandable that this course of events could cascade into frustration, bitterness, anger and eventually legal action.

Patients are not the only ones who feel isolated and unsupported after medical errors; health-care providers are discouraged and sometimes forbidden to discuss these events with friends or family. 

During graduate school orientation, when I was studying to become a certified nurse midwife, I had the opportunity to hear Doug Wojcieszak speak. He is the founder and spokesperson for the Sorry Works! Coalition, an advocacy group that encourages disclosure, appropriate apology and compensation after an adverse medical event occurs.

Wojcieszak founded the group after his older brother died as a result of medical errors and likens the current malpractice predicament in this country to shoddy customer service.

The Sorry Works! Coalition challenges the idea that apologizing is accepting blame or admitting to an error, and embraces full disclosure as a “middle-ground solution to the malpractice crisis.”  The organization aims to convince the medical community, as well as lawyers and insurance companies, that communicating with patients and families after adverse medical events can be positive and should be embraced.

Medicine is an imperfect system filled with individuals who will at one point or another make a mistake. All health-care providers strive to provide the best care and hope that, if and when errors occur, an adverse event will not be the outcome. 

Unfortunately, insurance companies, politicians and the legal community have done nothing to improve the culture of litigation except to encourage clinicians to practice “cover your ass medicine.” In my opinion, Wojcieszak  and his group provide a wise approach to the growing U.S. medical malpractice crisis. Clinicians who are interested in learning more can visit the Sorry Works! Coalition's website.

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