Could "I'm Sorry" End Malpractice?

Dr. Emily Senay Takes A Look At Doctors Who Apologize For Medical Errors

Linda Kenney went into the hospital for what she expected to be a short stay for ankle surgery in 1999. Days later in the ICU, she found out she was lucky just to be alive.

“Nothing could have prepared me for what had happened,” Kenney told The Early Show medical correspondent Dr. Emily Senay. “Woke up with my chest re-wired and tubes everywhere.”

She suffered a rare complication where anesthesia entered her blood stream and caused her heart to stop. The man who gave her the almost lethal injection was anesthesiologist Dr. Rick Van Pelt.

“Within about 30 minutes from the onset of this event, Linda was on the operating table with her chest opened and was connected to a bypass machine,” Dr. Van Pelt said.

In some cases, patients fall victim to unavoidable complications, in other cases there truly was an error. Initially, Kenney wasn’t given the whole story — typical of many cases where a serious medical complication has occurred.

“They told me I had an allergic reaction to anesthesia, which I knew was an outright lie,” Kenney said.

“The message was, ‘Don’t talk.’ We just went on like nothing happened. I was at work the next day like nothing,” Dr. Van Pelt said.

Kenney tried to put her near-death experience behind her but Van Pelt could not put it behind him.

“This was a patient who put their trust in me and in spite of doing that, here I was having just about killed somebody and it was something inside of me said I have to be responsible for that,” he said.

He wrote Kenney a letter apologizing for what happened. Showing empathy and working with the patient to figure out what happened are things that Hospital Risk Managements are teaching medical professionals to do. Dr. Senay said they are using DVDs and discussions to help doctors.

Doug Wojcieszak never got an apology letter after his brother, Jim, died of from medical error so he sued the doctors and the hospital where Jim died.

“It’s not greed that drives most people to file medical malpractice lawsuits,” Wojcieszak said. “It’s anger. They get — people get angry when they think there’s a cover-up.”

Wojcieszak’s anger turned into action. He created the Sorry Works Coalition with a simple idea: Reduce malpractice lawsuits by telling patients the truth followed by an apology.

“Basically, what it is is we’re advocating good customer service. Without apology and disclosure, there can be no patients’ safety because as long as you’re coving up and denying, you’re never gonna learn,” Wojcieszak said.

According to healthcare litigation attorney Jim Saxton even lawyers say empathy works.

“That ‘I’m sorry’ done the right way with the right process can, number one, derail a lawsuit,” Saxton said.

It could also reduce costs. After the University of Michigan health system changed its medical error policy on malpractice cases, legal fees per case were more than cut in half. The legal climate is slowly changing. Twenty-nine states now have laws that protect doctors from lawsuits when they say they’re sorry.

It was the apology that opened the door for Kenney the patient and Van Pelt the doctor. They talked on the phone and two years later they met face to face for the first time since that day in 1999.

“I think about it now and I needed to know that this had an impact on — that it wasn’t just me and my family,” Kenney said. “That he didn’t almost just kill a patient and have no feelings later.”

“I think for me the biggest piece of this conversation was her offering me forgiveness. That still sends a chill down my spine,” Van Pelt said. “Forgiveness goes both ways. It helps both sides and I think that what’s so powerful about an apology and about forgiveness.”

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