Should apologies to injured patients be enough to keep malpractice cases off a doctor’s record?
A campaign has gotten under way to make that happen. And patient safety advocates are raising red flags.
Leading the campaign is an organization called Sorry Works! — yes, the exclamation point is part of its name.
Sorry Works! started as an advocacy group promoting apologies and disclosure of mistakes as a way to defuse the anger and bewilderment of injured patients that often lead to malpractice suits.
It’s a persuasive idea.
Many patients who sue their doctors say they wouldn’t have felt a need to go to court if they had gotten an explanation and an apology. Hospitals have tried full disclosure with offers of compensation and seen declines in lawsuits or the amounts paid to settle claims.
But about five years ago, Sorry Works! changed from a coalition of doctors, lawyers, insurers and patient advocates. Now it’s a commercial consulting firm. Founder Doug Wojcieszak offers training to hospitals and doctors. And he has started crusading for new immunity for doctors who apologize.
The National Practitioner Data Bank is a federal record of doctors’ dirty laundry — license suspensions, health care fraud convictions, malpractice payments. State medical boards consult it before granting licenses. Hospitals check it before offering staff privileges.
Wojcieszak wants the data bank to keep malpractice payments secret in many cases when doctors make apologies and disclosures. Further, he wants doctors shielded from medical board discipline on these cases.
Doctors would get a pass on two cases over 10 years; a third case during that time would open the files.
Wojcieszak considers this only fair for doctors who risk their reputations by admitting to errors.
Two cases may not seem like a lot, but it is. While working on a story last year, I found that most doctors never face more than one lawsuit, and most suits are dropped or dismissed.
Doctors who cross Wojcieszak’s disclosure threshold are rare. For example, Massachusetts regulators estimated that of the 34,000 physicians licensed in the state, fewer than 100 will make more than two payments on malpractice claims over 10 years.
More than two dozen patient safety advocates and organizations like Consumers Union say Wojcieszak’s proposal would give doctors who were going to settle a suit anyway an incentive to apologize just to keep it off their record.
This would gut the data bank as a tool for protecting the public and tie the hands of medical boards by putting many questionable doctors out of reach.
Wojcieszak has gotten some support for his campaign: The Sorry Works! website lists donations from the CEOs of a health care staffing company and an organization that deters “frivolous malpractice claims.”