A central issue in the discussion of health care is how to reduce the number of patients injured by medical mistakes. The question of patient safety is often overlooked when tort reform is discussed, leading the debate to focus on doctors versus lawyers rather than on patients and the delivery of safe medical care, the right to information about medical errors, and adequate compensation when malpractice occurs.
Studies have shown that patients are much less likely to sue when they are given full information as to the medical care provided, including a detailed explanation when something goes wrong. The lack of information is often the impetus for the patient to sue; doctors who disclose what happened and offer apologies actually decrease the chances that they will be sued. Apologies diminish anger, and when patients and families members are confused and upset over the care they or their loved ones have been provided, they turn to a lawyer for the explanation that the physician should have provided. When physicians “stonewall” patient and family inquiries about medical treatment, they harm the patient-physician relationship which should be built on trust. When medical negligence occurs, and is covered up, the patient feels intentionally betrayed. The patient is thus doubly injured: once by the malpractice and then by the betrayal. Patients deserve information; in fact, that is part of their medical care. Honest explanations which become part of the medical record would also ensure that data can be compiled and studied, leading to strategies to reduce medical errors. Both patients and physicians would benefit.