Often times when we meet with new clients in our Chicago office they tell us that they are most upset about the fact that no one has ever said they are sorry after a tragic event occurs. Lawyers and insurance companies have for years advised their doctor clients to deny and defend. The rationale behind this behavior is an attempt to foil these patients from filing claims or costly lawsuits. This behavior is contrary to what most of us learn at an early age, taking responsibility for ones actions and showing empathy is better than running away from the truth.
Malcolm Gladstone in his book Blink acknowledged this behavior and cited an interesting study that showed that when a doctor apologized for a mistake his patients were less likely to pursue legal action. Gladstone makes a very important point. People just dont sue doctors that they like. He cites work by medical researcher Wendy Levinson who recorded hundreds of conversations between a group of physicians and their patients. Roughly half of the doctors had never been sued. The other half had been sued at least twice, and Levinson found that just on the basis of those conversations, she could find clear differences between the two groups. The surgeons who had never been sued spent more than three minutes longer with each patient than those who had been sued did (18.3 minutes versus 15 minutes). They were more likely to make “orienting” comments, such as “First I’ll examine you, and then we will talk the problem over” or “I will leave time for your questions”–which help patients get a sense of what the visit is supposed to accomplish and when they ought to ask questions. They were more likely to engage in active listening, saying such things as “Go on, tell me more about that,” and they were far more likely to laugh and be funny during the visit. Interestingly, there was no difference in the amount or quality of information they gave their patients; they didn’t provide more details about medication or the patient’s condition. The difference was entirely in how they talked to their patients.
Thirty-five states have passed laws making expressions of apology within the first month-or-so after an incident occurs inadmissable in a civil lawsuit for malpractice. With apology legislation mistakes have now become teaching opportunities as opposed to adversarial situations. This allows patients to understand the situation, find answers and assure that justice is served.