Discover Why A Doctor’s Apology Is Worth A Thousand Words


Apologizing for a medical mistake may save doctors thousands of dollars and the stress of a malpractice lawsuit. According to a new study, recently published in The Annals of Internal Medicine and conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan Health System and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, doctors that admit a medical error, apologize, and offer compensation are less likely to be sued by their patients.

In 2001, University of Michigan Health System officials launched a program aimed at encouraging healthcare professionals to report their medical mistakes. The program created procedures for healthcare professionals to follow after a mistake had been made including: “telling patients about errors; explaining who made the error, how it occurred and what steps were taken to prevent a similar mistake in the future; making a sincere apology to the patient or their family; and offering fair compensation for harm when at fault”.

According to the researchers, an analysis of records pertaining to 1,131 malpractice claims filed against healthcare professionals employed at the hospitals between 1995 and 2007 (both before and after the new procedure was put in place), showed that the new procedures resulted in a large reduction in the number of lawsuits, lower legal costs, and faster dispute resolution.

Their findings showed that after health care providers began admitting mistakes, apologizing and offering compensation, the monthly rate for new claims fell from “just over seven per 100,000 patient encounters to 4.52 per 100,000, or 36 percent”. Furthermore, the average monthly rate of malpractice lawsuits filed against the hospital “fell by more than half, from 2.13 per 100,000 patient encounters to 0.75 per 100,000”. Lastly, the median time it took to resolve claims dropped by several months, while the mean costs for liability, fell by 60 percent and the average cost for lawsuits that were filed decreased, from about $406,000 to $228,000.

This research flies in the face of what most physicians and healthcare workers are typically told to do in the case of a medical mistake. Healthcare professionals are usually encouraged not to apologize, as that could be the equivalent of admitting fault, and could essentially open them up to a meritorious lawsuit. According to an article on the topic in Bloomberg Businessweek, most doctors fear that “admitting fault invites lawsuits and amounts to handing over a ‘blank check’ to attorneys”. While that may be true in some cases, the University of Michigan Health System’s research shows that is hardly always the case, and that apologizing may be the way to go.

It is refreshing to hear that doctors are owning up to mistakes and apologizing instead of simply hiding behind hospital officials and lawyers. I would be very interested to see this procedure implemented in other hospitals, and whether the results are similar. I am curious to see whether certain variables play a part in the success of apologies, such as the type of mistake, the location of the hospital, and the type of doctor giving the apology. The University may be onto something if their research results can be duplicated in other hospitals.