Lucian Leape, adjunct Professor of Health Policy at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), is working to change that. This former pediatric surgeon, widely regarded as the leader of the patient safety movement, aims to make apology part of full-disclosure policies at hospitals nationwide—a critical step in reducing errors that kill an estimated 98,000 patients a year and injure far more. For Leape, apology in the face of a problem that could have been prevented is not only the right thing to do, it’s a “therapeutic necessity.”
Leape says patients need apologies before they can forgive and heal from the “emotional wound” inflicted by their new and unexpected injury. “Apologizing doesn’t always work; sometimes the anger is too great,” Leape says. “But healing can’t begin without it.”
This fall, 16 Harvard-affiliated teaching hospitals will start rolling out disclosure-and-apology training workshops for doctors, nurses, administrators, and insurance experts with funding from CRICO/RMF, the hospitals’ joint malpractice insurer. The workshops will help the hospitals put into action work by a group of clinicians, patients, lawyers, and insurance company risk managers convened by Leape in 2004, whose recommendations resulted in When Things Go Wrong, a 42-page set of principles for crafting disclosure and apology policies.
Unanimously supported by the 16 hospitals, this slender document underscores health care providers’ “ethical obligation” to report the whole truth, and nothing but—and to support victims of mishaps, as well as distraught caregivers. Since March 2006, when When Things Go Wrong was published online, each hospital has drawn up a disclosure-and-apology policy that reflects its unique culture. The guide has been “downloaded thousands of times and translated into several languages”—evidence, Leape notes, of an accelerating trend toward transparency in medicine. (For copies, visit www.macoalition.org.)
The Malpractice Factor
No one knows what impact errors disclosure will have on malpractice litigation. To assuage insurers’ concerns, Leape points to research linking poor communication with patients’ decisions to sue, as well as success stories in three states for hospitals that practice open disclosure and also provide compensation to patients for costs related to their injuries. In Colorado, there has been no change in lawsuit rates at COPIC, the state’s largest insurer, which reimburses injured patients for lost time and expenses; nor has a veteran’s hospital in Kentucky seen malpractice lawsuits increase. In Michigan, one health care system has seen a large decline over four years in both the incidence and the costs of litigation (see sidebar).
In talks around the country, Leape stresses that the patients most likely to sue are those who lose trust in their caregivers. “What we’re trying to say to our brethren—physicians primarily, but also nurses, even insurance companies-is that how you handle these situations during the acute phase is absolutely crucial to how patients will handle them,” he says.
“The first step is to say, ‘You’ve had this happen, and we’re sorry it did,” Leape says. “Next is, ‘Here’s everything we know now, and what the future holds.’ The third step is, ‘We don’t know how it happened, but we’re going to conduct a full investigation and we’ll keep you informed.’ A formal apology follows if the investigation reveals an error or systems failure.”
“As surveys and the great weight of anecdotal evidence tell us,” he says, “all these measures help lessen the patient’s anxiety.”
‘Level With Us’
In 1998, Wojcieszak’s 39-year-old brother, Jim, died following a series of blunders after being hospitalized for cardiac distress. Doctors confused his chart with that of his father, whose own cardiac workup had been “perfect,” Doug says. Mistakenly treated for a bacterial infection, Jim suffered three heart attacks in four days, all of which went undiagnosed—until the autopsy.
“We tell doctors, ‘Look,
we can live with mistakes as long as you level with us,’” Wojcieszak
says. “We know from
experience that it’s not errors that drive lawsuits, it’s
lapses in ‘customer service’—nurses were rude, no one
returned phone calls. It’s the sense that doctors are hiding that
makes patients more likely to sue.”
He points to promising research by Michelle Mello, the C. Boyden Gray Associate Professor of Health Policy and Law at HSPH, and her collaborators, who have proposed that states test a system similar to one in New Zealand. The proposal calls for patients to file claims with special “health courts” staffed by trained judges and neutral paid medical consultants. To receive compensation, patients would be required to show, not that health care providers were negligent, but that the injury would have been avoided in an optimal system of care. The compensation process would be faster, more reliable, and less adversarial than the current, lawsuit-based system. (For details, see “Malpractice Roulette” from the Fall 2005 issue of the Review and an August 2007 podcast with Mello).
Workshop for ‘Coaches’
Most doctors are uncomfortable even explaining the circumstances surrounding complications that might have been avoided, says Charles MacFarlane, vice president for learning with Joint Commission Resources, an Illinois company that helps hospitals improve health care quality. “These are difficult conversations,” he says. “Sometimes apologizing is a skill that has to be learned.”
For caregivers overwhelmed by self-recrimination, discussing the problem can be hard. The workshops, sponsored by CRICO/RMF, aim “to help institutions respond effectively and compassionately to patients, families, and clinicians,” says David Browning, a clinical social worker involved in the effort. Browning is a senior scholar at the Institute for Professionalism and Ethical Practice (IPEP), a Children’s Hospital-based initiative that helps clinicians communicate with patients about subjects that include organ donation, wrenching end-of-life choices, and medical errors. He will be partnering with Robert Truog, who directs both IPEP and clinical ethics at Harvard Medical School.
Participants will act out scenarios in which professional actors play injured patients and family members. Each half-day workshop will engage up to 25 people, who will take turns in various roles while the rest observe. “A scenario might begin with a clinician being notified that an error has occurred,” Browning explains. “It will progress to the conversations he or she will have with the physicians and nurses involved, helping them to prepare for the disclosure, then finally to the disclosure and apology.” Participants will serve as coaches at their own hospitals, advising others during preventable, real-life “adverse events,” be they a drug overdose, wrong-site surgery, or equipment failure.
“Communicating errors is like anything in medicine,” says HSPH alumnus Ken Sands, MPH 1993, senior vice president for health care quality at Harvard affiliate Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC). “Some situations require expert assistance, and trained coaches must be available to provide this at all times.” In the case of BIDMC, workshop participants will be drawn from a communications team created in 2006 to guide hospital clinicians in errors disclosure.
Setting the Standard
Openness, humility, conceding medicine’s imperfections—these are “new concepts in health care,” Leape observes. For years, risk managers pointedly have argued against full, open communication, apology, and restitution when treatment turns injurious. Now, change is clearly happening, he says, and for good reason: “We’re saying, it’s time to do what we’ve always known was right.”
Charlie Schmidt has written about public health and environmental health for Environmental Health Perspectives, Science, National Geographic Online, Discover, the Washington Post, and other journals and media outlets.
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