Blog | Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Patients just as likely to sue after apologies

Apologizing for a medical error in full and accepting responsibility may boost patients' perceptions of physicians but may not stop them from suing, according to simulations conducted at Johns Hopkins and reported in the Sept. 1 issue of the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

Researchers created simulated scenarios of three medical mistakes: a year-long delay in noticing a malignant-looking lesion on a mammogram, a chemotherapy overdose 10 times the intended amount and a slow response to pages by a pediatric surgeon for a patient who eventually codes and is rushed to emergency surgery. Actors played out levels of physician apology (full, non-specific and none) and acceptance of responsibility (full or none). 200 adult viewers then evaluated the simulations and reported their impressions. Sample videos used in this study are online.

Viewers who thought that the doctor had fully apologized and taken responsibility gave the doctors much higher ratings (81% vs. 38%; P<0.05) and would refer the doctor (56% vs. 27%; P<0.05), but weren't significantly moved not to sue (43% vs. 47%).

What's not reported in this study was whether the doctor could avoid being named in the eventual lawsuit. ACP's news magazines have reported in the past on ways to apologize and how it affects malpractice litigation.