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Long-term impact of increasing medical error disclosure

Patients of doctors in New Mexico have traditionally received limited disclosure from doctors concerning medical errors. The reasons for this have included the doctor's general discomfort with the process of disclosure, embarrassment and also the fear of medical malpractice lawsuits. Patients want to learn of harmful errors so that they can learn of steps to minimize the harm, but they also want to know why the error occurred and what steps will be taken to prevent its recurrence.

Up until now, many doctors have failed to provide full disclosure of errors in part because they don't know how best to do so, and hospitals have often taken a "deny-and-defend" approach that provides limited information and avoids admission of fault. On the other hand, experience shows that a quick apology and offers of financial compensation where appropriate have reduced malpractice suits and litigation.

In the last several years, a number of medical organizations have endorsed and proposed standards for full disclosure of medical errors. Additionally, a few states have adopted laws that require disclosure, and a handful of other states have enacted legislation encouraging disclosure by limiting the use of such information in lawsuits.

A suit for medical malpractice may be necessary if there are damages to the patient as a result of the error and the damages are not otherwise covered, either because the medical personnel or facility dispute the effect of the error or because the compensation offered is not sufficient to cover the needs. An attorney can and should still be consulted when a patient has been harmed, even if disclosure and an apology are offered, in order to have an objective evaluation of the patient's position and future needs.

Source: Patient Safety Network, "Error Disclosure", October 22, 2014

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