Are Medical Malpractice Lawsuits To Blame For Doctors Shirking Responsibility For Their Errors?

The blog features a blog post about the story of Dr. Ring – whom we had previously blogged about here.
Dr. Pho (aka KevinMD) claims that Dr. Ring’s story is getting such heavy media attention because it’s a rarity – a practitioner owning up to a medical error in a public manner. Dr. Pho says that doctors admitting mistakes is a rarity because doctors are afraid of getting sued for admitting their mistakes. The medical malpractice system leads to concealing mistakes, Dr. Pho claims, and that’s bad for patient safety.
As one commenter to the blog post notes, “Doctors have a multitude of reasons to hide their errors, rather than the fear of litigation. There’s bad reputation, loss of self-respect, difficulty of admitting error to patients, loss of patients, and other financial injuries-as well as professional ostracism.”
The reputational harm of admitting mistakes is probably the reason why so few doctors admit mistakes even after the insurance carriers have paid out claims and the doctor no longer faces any liability whatsoever for his mistake. If Dr. Pho’s theory explained things, doctors would freely own up to mistakes once they had obtained a release of claims for settling a case. But they don’t (generally).
I think doctors don’t admit mistakes because they’re, well, doctors. As Dr. James Bagian, the VA’s chief of patient safety, notes here, doctors trace their heritage back to Hippocrates, not the trial-and-error values of the Scientific Revolution. Doctors aren’t scientists; they are healers, and this means that they are loathe to admit their mistakes.
It’s also psychologically a lot harder for a doctor to admit a mistake than a research scientist. When laboratory scientists make mistakes, the only real world effect normally is that they’ve wasted their time chasing a hypothesis that did not pan out. When doctors make mistakes, there’s a real human being, one they’ve met and know and cared for, whom they’ve hurt.
As Dr. Pho is aware, there is evidence suggesting that doctors who admit to mistakes uprfront are less likely to ultimately be sued for medical malpractice. And insurance companies study medical malpractice claims to try and develop ways of avoiding repeating the same mistakes.
Dr. Pho may be right that our medical malpractice system should be less adversarial. But fear of being sued is not the main reason, or even a substantial reason, why doctors are not forthcoming about mistakes.

This blog is maintained by the Boston medical malpractice lawyers at The Law Office of Alan H. Crede, P.C. The blog neither contains nor offers legal advice.