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Posted on 01.27.2011

The “Sorry” Word Works

For almost 25 years, Lovell Communications has provided marketing and brand reputation counsel to some of the greatest hospitals, health systems and academic medical centers in the country.  We might help rollout and build new hospital services … or announce billion dollar mergers or exciting medical advancements … or help launch an important community health initiative. We’re fortunate to work with extraordinarily talented executives and skillful physicians. Unfortunately, many a conscientious provider has experienced a significant negative outcome or adverse patient event.  Indeed, sometimes good – even great – hospitals and clinicians make mistakes, miss a diagnosis, or fail to appropriately understand a patient’s condition. Though we like to think that physicians are super heroes and nurses are beyond common error, healthcare teams are comprised of hardworking, highly trained professionals that are, like all of us, susceptible to human frailty and the occasional oversight or lapse. Like most humans who have caused or contributed to an error, clinical teams and their legal support systems usually move quickly into defensive mode when a serious adverse event is discovered.  Just as a patient and their family are looking for increased information and escalated attention, physicians and administrators too often begin to decrease interaction and withhold non-essential information.  The intimacy of the patient/provider relationship degrades, communication becomes strained and distrust blossoms.  Plaintiffs’ attorneys follow shortly thereafter. Since formalizing its organization in 2005, the Sorry Works! Coalition has helped hospitals and healthcare providers take a different approach.  In a nutshell, the Sorry Works! philosophy advocates for “disclosure, apology (when appropriate), and upfront compensation (when necessary) after adverse medical events.” The Coalition’s website provides information, white papers, videos and presentations to help providers, administrators, risk managers and healthcare attorneys understand their recommended approach to disclosure. To quote the Coalition’s credo, “The medical malpractice crisis is a customer service crisis that medical, insurance, and legal professionals can fix anytime they wish.” While I am uncertain that diagnosis is 100% accurate, our firm’s experience has shown it is worth consideration.  We’ve managed issues in hospitals that embrace disclosure, and we have managed (more) issues in hospitals that are lawyer-driven in their approach.  Though we do not track outcomes and we have no quantitative evidence, we can say anecdotally that a Sorry Works! type approach can achieve more positive, less costly outcomes for providers (both in terms of settlement amounts and legal fees).  And because this kind of approach often reduces the life cycle of a lawsuit, the collateral damage (to patients, families, work teams and brand reputations alike) is often greatly decreased. In today’s world, a negative outcome – or even a minor medical error – can become widely spread blog fodder in a matter of hours.  A “sucks” site or an “I hate ____” Facebook page up can pop up shortly after an incident takes place in the ER or OR or NICU.  But fostering a culture that allows clinicians to show empathy to a family at the moment of disclosure, or say “I’m sorry” to a patient facing an unexpected setback in their care, can help stop the negative backlash before it begins.

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