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How medical apology programs can end up hurting patients

Whether it’s a medication error, surgical mistake or birth injury, medical negligence can change a person’s life forever. Medical malpractice lawsuits exist to compensate the victims of medical mistakes as well as improve the quality of health care in Ohio and the rest of the country.

Recently, some states have decided to implement programs that attempt to limit the number of medical malpractice lawsuits by forcing doctors and hospitals to apologize for medical mistakes that have caused patients harm. The theory is that everyone wins with an apology.

However, as a law school professor pointed out in a recent interview, the idea doesn’t always benefit patients. The law professor is from Massachusetts, where hospitals have been encouraged to adopt an apology program under which hospitals and insurers offer patients financial compensation in exchange for a promise not to pursue a lawsuit.

The problem, the law professor said, is that patients could easily be taken advantage of by accepting an apology and a settlement offer without knowing the true value of their medical malpractice claims. In other words, patients may not know how much they need to cover future expenses related to the medical error.

Without knowing how much their claims are worth, patients are more likely to accept a lower offer. For example, a program like this already exists in Michigan and research has shown that, on average, patients end up with smaller settlements than they did before the program was in place.

The law professor concluded that apology programs could be beneficial to patients so long as the patients are advised to seek outside legal advice and fully understand their rights before agreeing to an offer with the hospital or insurer. This way, it would be harder for hospitals and insurers to take advantage of patients.

Source:  90.9 WBUR, “Law Professor: Medical Apology Programs Might Manipulate Patients,” Sacha Pfeiffer and Lynn Jolicoeur, May 1, 2012