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Truthful Doctors May Prevent Malpractice Suits

Joe Cantlupe, for HealthLeaders Media, February 16, 2012

But many experts agree that concealing medical errors, being dishonest, or practicing overly defensive medicine isn't the way to thwart malpractice litigation.

Research shows that the more likely physicians are to discuss errors with patients, the less likely they will be sued, Iezzoni says. Perhaps it makes the doctors seem less god-like and more human, so patients can relate to them.

"Some physicians may wonder about revealing errors to certain patients if no serious harm resulted from them. I know a lot of physicians are reluctant to talk about medical errors. But the more open you are in talking about errors, the less likely patients are going to pursue litigation, and the more likely you are going to gain the trust of patients, and be able to move forward in a therapeutic way," Iezzoni said.

Among other things, informing patients about the errors can "reduce anger," she adds. "If you talk openly to patients in situations where errors happened, it makes patients understand better what happened, why it happened and makes them less likely to pursue litigation as a solution to it."

Iezzoni notes that academic literature stretching back to the 1990s has shown that  "openness" in communication between physicians and patients has potentially positive impacts on avoiding malpractice suits.

As for Iezzoni and her colleagues, their biggest concern wasn't simply the malpractice issue. It was the totality of honesty in communications between physicians and patients, for whatever the reason.

Why aren't doctors always upfront with patients? "I think there are probably as many reasons as there are doctors and patients," she says.

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2 comments on "Truthful Doctors May Prevent Malpractice Suits"


Deb Levy (2/16/2012 at 4:23 PM)
I can tell you from personal experience that it's true admitting a mistake can save a world of hurt. There was a mix-up in the size of the knees replacement in the OR and 3 days post-op the femur fractured. After the open internal fixation of the fracture the surgeon told of the error and the possiblity that was the reason for the fracture. I so appreciated the honesty that when further complications occurred & he said the treatment was best done by subspecialist I trusted him. Even after the leg ended up being amputated (due to a multitude of complications) I never considered suing, although there were plenty of people who said we should. Never once have I regretted not suing. Heaven couldn't have helped him had I found out the error some way other than him telling me!

C Ghosh (2/16/2012 at 3:51 PM)
Sadly this HealthLeaders study falls into the trap so many other similar studies do: It makes the assumption that there actually is something called "defensive medicine" and that doctors are consciously doing extra testing for fear of a lawsuit. Doctors, who have been accused of driving up national medical costs by over ordering testing, have defensively fallen back on the "fear of malpractice made me do it" excuse. The truth is EVERY TIME a doctor orders a test, the doctor needs that extra information. For example, if a patient has a cut on her hand, her doctor won't order a CT Scan of her foot. NEVER. A headache may warrant a CT Scan because we don't know what's causing it. While health economists see this as extra testing, it's not to the doctor who is trying to make the correct diagnosis. Doctors have been so conditioned to think that anything the outside experts may think as superfluous is "defensive medicine," that doctors themselves label every extra test as "defensive medicine." The real kicker in this survey is that only 2% ordered for financial gain.