A few years ago, I was with my father in the ICU of a community hospital when I noticed that he seemed worse than usual and had a rash all over his body.  I tried to get the attention of the doctors, but they had better things to do than tend to non-life-threatening issues.

I was about to walk out the door after a long day when my father’s most senior doctor called out to me, “Wait a minute.  I want to tell you something”.  So I stopped.  The doctor said: “I just want you to know that I mistakenly gave your father a medication he was allergic to and I want to apologize for it.

I thought my ears needed cleaning because it’s not often that I hear doctors say “I’m sorry”.  But I certainly appreciated it.  Apparently things are changing now.  According to an editorial in the New York Times today, doctors at certain major hospitals are being encouraged to acknowledge and apologize for their errors promptly.  I think in the long run this will improve our healthcare system and the lives of both doctors and patients.  Following are some excerpts from the story.


The willingness of doctors at several major medical centers to apologize to patients for harmful errors is a promising step toward improving the quality of a medical system that kills tens of thousands of patients a year inadvertently.

For years, experts have lamented that medical malpractice litigation is an inefficient way to deter lethal or damaging medical errors. Most victims of malpractice never sue, and there is some evidence that many patients who do sue were not harmed by a physician’s error but instead suffered an adverse medical outcome that could not have been prevented. The details of what went wrong are often kept secret as part of a settlement agreement.

What is needed, many specialists agree, is a system that quickly brings an error to light so that further errors can be headed off and that compensates victims promptly and fairly. Many doctors, unfortunately, have been afraid that admitting and describing their errors would only invite a costly lawsuit.

Now, as described by Kevin Sack in The Times, a handful of prominent academic medical centers have adopted a new policy of promptly disclosing errors, offering earnest apologies and providing fair compensation. It appears to satisfy many patients, reduce legal costs and the litigation burden and, in some instances, helps reduce malpractice premiums. . .

Admitting errors is only the first step toward reforming the health care system so that far fewer mistakes are made. But reforms can be more effective if doctors are candid about how they went astray. Patients seem far less angry when they receive an honest explanation, an apology and prompt, fair compensation for the harm they have suffered.