New Insight into Apologies and Lawsuits

There is an intriguing new article in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, “Disclosing Medical Errors to Patients: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What They Hear ” (click on title for copy of full article) which examines the effects of apologies and physician disclosure of medical errors. The bottom line:  Although patients feel better about physicians when they apologize and accept responsibility, they are just as likely to sue as when the disclosure or apology is unsatisfactory.

The study, conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins University, required volunteers to watch videos of disclosures of three adverse events (missed mammogram, chemotherapy overdose, delay in surgical therapy) and react to the various disclosure methods, content and conduct of the medical providers.

The authors concluded, not surprisingly, that the volunteers responded more favorably to physicians who apologized and accepted responsibility for medical errors.  However, somewhat surprisingly, there was no statistical reduction in the category “inclination to sue” despite full apology and acceptance of responsibility.

The research stands out because it is in stark contrast to much of the recent medical liability literature, which advocates for disclosure and apology as a potential way to reduce the risk and costs of medical malpractice lawsuits.  Instead, this study confirms that although disclosure and apology are ethically the “right thing to do,” they need to be carefully managed and conducted, and they should not be seen as silver bullets for the medical malpractice lawsuit problem.