Lisa Zenzen Baker, 1961-2003


Friday, November 11, 2005

A sorry state of affairs


For some doctors, ‘sorry’ might be the hardest word.

But saying it when a mistake has hurt a patient could save a lot of money. Not to mention years of bitter litigation for both the doctor and the patient or his or her grieving family.

Consider this: The University of Michigan Health System has seen its annual legal costs drop by two thirds, and the number of medial malpractice lawsuits filed against it cut in half in the two years since it began acknowledging and apologizing for its medical mistakes.

Now the state Legislature in Illinois is being urged to have two hospitals in that state implement a program called ‘Sorry Works’ to see if it can save them money.

The idea for ‘Sorry Works’ came from a VA hospital in Kentucky. It was started in 1987 after two malpractice cases cost the hospital over $1.5 million. It, too, has seen its liability costs go sharply down.

This is all according to The Associated Press. The story pointed out that by one estimate, 98,000 people are killed each year in the US as a result of medical mistakes. It said the idea is to change the attitude of the many doctors who are unwilling to admit an error and act as if they are infallible.

They are not, of course. But some of them seem to think they are.

Just like some newspaper editors do. I still have received no response to my letter sent back in September to Times Union Editor Rex Smith in which I asked for his comment on the fact that his paper has ignored every one of the dozens of lawsuits filed against Capital Region doctors and hospitals in the past five years.

Doctors, it seems, have no monopoly on arrogance.

But the idea that an apology could avoid a lawsuit seems so obvious that you wonder why it has taken this long for more medical institutions to try it. I know after Lisa received catastrophic brain damage and later died from what, according to Samaritan Hospital’s own records, was almost certainly a terrible mistake, an immediate acknowledgement and a full explanation of what happened would have made a difference.

Instead, the hospital’s management has done what most medical institutions and doctors do; It has refused to even discuss what happened to Lisa that night.

So, rather than offer an immediate explanation and perhaps a relatively modest settlement, its insurance carrier instead is about to spend tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees as it fights another “frivolous” lawsuit every step of the way, before almost certainly settling the claim in two or three years in a case it knows even now it won’t take to trial.

That’s what is partly responsible for the medical malpractice “crisis” that President Bush wants to “reform” by outlawing most claims. (Another factor is the insurance industry’s attempt to make up for losses in the stock market by jacking up premiums, just as it did during the municipality insurance “crisis” of the mid 1980s.) And anyway, in New York and several other states, most weak medical malpractice cases are already weeded out by a law that requires that claims be evaluated by a medical expert before they can be filed.

In other words, the problem is not greedy patients and their families. It’s insatiable insurance company stockholders.

And most of all, doctors who still can’t bring themselves to say that hardest little word.