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A Doctor's Perspective: Why Don't Doctors Apologize for All Medical Errors?

The University of Massachusetts Medical School's chief of pediatric cardiology recently wrote an intriguing article in the Boston Globe discussing why it is difficult for doctors to come forward when they commit serious medical malpractice.

There is a pervasive fear of medical malpractice claims, Dr. Darshak Sanghavi writes. "Physicians tend to view malpractice cases as attacks that demand retaliation, not appeasement."

Yet, the view that there is a "medical malpractice crisis," or that doctors must fear frivolous lawsuits, is far from accurate. In fact, a 2006 analysis by the New England Journal of Medicine found that 97 percent of medical malpractice cases involved an actual injury and nearly two-thirds were the result of a medical mistake. Many more errors are never addressed -- only two percent of medical malpractice victims ever bring a claim.

Furthermore, malpractice premiums are going down, not up. In Massachusetts, for example, 96 percent of doctors pay less in premiums now than they did in 1975.

If there is a medical malpractice crisis, then, it is not that physicians must pay too much in premiums or that they face frivolous lawsuits. Instead, it is that physicians are not being held responsible for all of their errors.

In Dr. Darshak Sanghavi's article, he mentions that he was told to "not engage the matter further" when he reported that a medical professional's misread of an ultrasound caused a patient's death. "I know of dozens of such cases," he said. "The bitter fact is that there is no appetite in the medical community to come clean preemptively about every medical error."

That is why it is so important for patients to speak up if they believe they have been injured by a medical professional's negligence. As Sanghavi puts it, "The law addresses only a small part of the problem, but it -- together with data-driven efforts to find patterns of error in similar cases -- is a step toward getting doctors and insurers to admit that malpractice claims often are sparked by both real failures of communication and failures in clinical care."

Source: The Boston Globe, "Medical malpractice: Why is it so hard for doctors to apologize?" Dr. Darshak Sanghavi, Jan. 27, 2013

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