How to apologize and reduce malpractice risk

September 29, 2006

If you do not get a patient's care right, then get the caring right, said Richard Roberts, MD, JD, at a session on reducing the risk of malpractice lawsuits.

If you do not get a patient's care right, then get the caring right, said Richard Roberts, MD, JD, at a session on reducing the risk of malpractice lawsuits.

"Patients who feel that their doctor did not care are more likely to sue. Many doctors wrongly believe that money is the greatest motivator," he said.

If something goes wrong with the care, physicians should undertake a series of steps to exhibit their caring and make an apology. In doing so, they may lessen the risk of malpractice, said Dr Roberts, who is a Professor of Family Medicine, University of Wisconsin Medical School, Madison. He advises:

Step 1: Get the whole story. When you are going to make an apology, get the facts.

Step 2: Set a time and place for a conversation. Sit down and have a talk with the patient. Don't do it on the fly or standing up.

Step 3: To start the conversation, ask the patient one question: "What is your understanding of what has happened?"

Step 4: Tell your side of the story, and make sure to communicate the effort that you have undertaken on the patient's behalf. Also include the family at this point. "Families often drive lawsuits. Patients tend to be more forgiving," Dr Roberts said.

Step 5: Say you're sorry. Patients will forgive gaps in knowledge and execution but not gaps in caring.

Step 6: Make it right for the patient. Correct the mistake if possible. Or let the patient know that action has been taken to ensure the mistake is not repeated with other patients.