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“I’m Sorry” Policy Works for University of Michigan Health System

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It’s like a test to see who will blink first: patients, who are injured as a result of medical malpractice, want justice for the pain and suffering they endure, while hospitals and hospital staff are wary to utter the words “sorry” for fear that their apology will be mistaken for an admission of wrongdoing. However, Richard Boothman, a malpractice defense attorney and chief risk officer at the University of Michigan Health System, says a simple apology can go a long way in saving time, money, and suffering for doctors, patients, and the public.

Boothman calls it “common decency”, but when doctors admit mistakes it goes well beyond decency. It has also proven to be a shrewd business strategy, as Boothman has discovered: since implementing the “I’m sorry” strategy, malpractice claims against his health system fell from 121 in 2001 to 61 in 2006. Moreover, the backlog of open claims fell from 262 in 2001 to 106 in 2006 to 83 in 2007. The U of M Health System learns of medical errors from doctors, as well as patients and their lawyers, to which the university responds by conducting a peer review to see if there was an error and also to see if additional changes are needed to prevent the same mistake from happening again. Furthermore, health system doctors and officials offer to meet with patients and their families to explain why they felt a particular treatment was appropriate, and most importantly, to sometimes admit they made a mistake.

However, the “I’m sorry” policy does have its skeptics: Norman Tucker, a malpractice attorney, said that while he agrees that the school is fair in admitting when it makes mistakes, it also makes it more difficult in cases where the health system denies error. Furthermore, Matthew Gaier, the co-chairman of the New York State Trial Lawyers Association’s medical malpractice committee, says it is the right of injured patients to sue healthcare providers who make mistakes and to force them to open their internal records. Moreover, per a 2007 article in the journal “Health Affairs, 181,000 people are severely injured each year as a result of medical mistakes, but only 30,000 file legal claims. Most of those people don’t sue because they don’t realize they are victims of medical malpractice. In order for there to be a reduction in the number of future medical mistakes at hospitals and to improve the standard of care, it is important that there is transparency in sharing internal records. Unfortunately, sometimes the only way hospitals are willing to share internal documents is through a lawsuit.

Despite the criticisms, the “I’m sorry” policy seems like a step in the right direction. Notwithstanding my post from yesterday, Mr. Boothman genuinely wants to do the right thing by saying sorry when it’s appropriate and resolving claims early—saving money, time and emotional trauma for the injured party and medical staff when valid claims do occur. In fact, our office has had firsthand experience with Rick Boothman. Per our office’s experience, Boothman vigorously defends and rejects cases that he believes do not involve a breach of the standard of care, but he is also fair in settling valid claims early and fairly.