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Keller @ Large: Could An Apology Reduce Malpractice Suits At Mass. Hospitals?

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BOSTON (CBS) – Could the words “I’m sorry” reduce malpractice suits at Massachusetts hospitals?

Right now, six hospitals in the state are participating in an experimental plan.

Doctors and nurses would tell patients about mistakes and their plans to investigate, and if the hospital is at fault there would be an apology and an offer of financial compensation.

Among the hospitals involved are Mass. General Hospital, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Baystate Medical Center.

Right now, doctors and nurses live in fear of malpractice suits, and have every incentive to hide mistakes and refuse to discuss what went wrong, let alone apologize to victims.

The toll includes costly insurance premiums, expensive legal proceedings, and frustration all around.

But, for this new approach to break the logjam, it’ll have to clear some political obstacles first.

Dr. Alan Woodward and his colleagues at the Mass. Medical Society say the disclosure, apology and offer process has worked in Michigan and can work here in Massachusetts too, transforming a medical culture for the benefit of doctors, patients and even lawyers, too.

“There’s no attempt to deprive anybody of their ability to litigate down the line, but let’s provide an alternative that’s better and more expeditious,” said Dr. Woodward.

Part of the problem is doctors don’t want to do or say anything that could be used against them in a lawsuit. There have been efforts to change the law to make medical apologies inadmissible, like a bill filed last year by Gov. Patrick, but this and other efforts all wound up dying on Beacon Hill.

“I would be very surprised if Beacon Hill ever passed a law that would allow for this to happen,” said David Frank an attorney from the newspaper Mass. Lawyers Weekly.

Frank predicts that attorneys for injured patients will be very reluctant to give up a crucial piece of legal leverage.

“If you have statements where a doctor admits wrongdoing, if you talk to lawyer’s on either side of a case, plaintiff’s or defense side, that’s the most damaging, smoking-gun-type evidence you can have in a case,” said Frank.

One key lawmaker wants to see the reform happen, but isn’t so sure it’s possible.

“We’d like them to say they’re sorry and fix the problem,” said State Sen. Richard Moore.

“I think this is just a pipe dream,” said Frank.

As I mentioned before, the program is working in Michigan, where an 11-year-old experiment has cut premiums and case resolution times, and reduced the number of court cases by more than 90 percent.

We’ll soon find out if living in Massachusetts means never having to say it’s time for change.

You can listen to Keller At Large on WBZ News Radio every weekday at 7:55 a.m. and 12:25 p.m. You can also watch Jon on WBZ-TV News.

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