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Telling the truth about medical errors

She went in to a hospital for a routine hysterectomy. A nursing professor, she knows a bit about the medical profession. So she expected to be home from the surgery the following day.

Instead, a series of medical errors resulted in a laundry list of negative outcomes for her: she spent weeks in a coma, had to endure five surgeries and she sustained permanent injuries. And when she asked what had gone wrong, she was met with silence from both her surgeon and the hospital.

A retired police officer likewise entered a hospital for surgery. He underwent disk replacement surgery but suffered a spinal cord injury during the operation that has left him a quadriplegic.

Unlike the nursing professor, however, his surgeon immediately informed him of the error and apologized for it. The hospital paid for his rehabilitation and major expenses, and paid him an undisclosed figure in compensation as well.

The retired cop said, “When hospitals mess up, they need to do the right thing.” And he adds that the hospital where he suffered his catastrophic injury did the right thing.

The approaches are starkly different. The first one described here is a "deny and defend" model in which doctors and hospitals hope to dodge responsibilities for negligence and mistakes. The second model tries to make litigation unnecessary with prompt disclosure of medical errors, apologies and compensation.

Some in the medical industry fear that the model based on candor and transparency will encourage more people to file medical malpractice lawsuits, though indications are that the opposite is true. Hospitals using the approach have seen the number of lawsuits drop dramatically.

It is at least encouraging that some hospitals and doctors are trying truth and transparency as an option. For many victims of malpractice, litigation is not only a means of telling the world what happened to them, but trying to make sure that it does not happen to others.

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