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Malpractice Lessons For Mass. From Michigan: Safer Doctors Mean Safer Patients

WBUR host Bob Oakes
WBUR host Bob Oakes


BOSTON — One plank of Gov. Deval Patrick’s plan to bring down soaring health care costs in Massachusetts is to change the laws around medical malpractice.

Under proposed changes, doctors in Massachusetts would be able to apologize to patients — without the risk that their apology could be used against them later, in court. The state would also implement a six-month “cooling off period,” so that hospitals and patients could try to resolve problems without lawsuits.

Rick Boothman, the chief risk officer at the University of Michigan health system, uses some of the ideas that Patrick is proposing. If his hospital makes a mistake, they tell the family they’re at fault and apologize — without the condition that the family won’t sue.

Boothman told Bob on the air today that the Michigan approach has dramatically cut the number of malpractice claims, as well as the number of those claims that end up in court. And it has changed medical culture, too.

"In order to make patients safer, we have to make doctors safer," he said. "This is the only profession I know where it's inherently risky to begin with, and a mistake can ruin someone financially. That's unfair."

"We tell our staff that they must always feel free to express sympathy and empathy to a family," apart from any apology, he said. And as for apologies, "We not only say 'I'm sorry it happened,' but 'I'm sorry we did this.'"

“We have to find a way to keep physicians and nurses professionally accountable," Boothman said, "but we have to make the system far less punitive.”

This program aired on March 2, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.

Carey Goldberg Twitter Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth blog.

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