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Do Doctors Hide Mistakes?

Doctors make mistakes all the time. In some cases, those mistakes are minor and no one is injured. However, some medical mistakes can lead to serious health consequences, including serious injury, disability, or death. What happens next can depend on whether the doctor admits to the mistake or denies everything. 

The healthcare environment often encourages doctors to deny they did anything wrong. The lawyers for the hospitals and insurance companies don’t want doctors to admit something went wrong or that it was the doctor’s fault. However, it can be better for the doctor and the patient when the doctor is open and honest about what happened and works with the patient to help address the errors. 

If you were injured by a medical error, don’t be surprised if the doctor denies anything went wrong or tries to blame you for your injuries. Instead, you can talk to a medical malpractice attorney about your case. A medical malpractice lawyer can help you get compensation for your injuries. Contact Gilman and Bedigian today online or by phone at 800-529-6162.  

Doctors Encouraged to Deny Mistakes

Doctors get their education in medical school but learn about the practice of medicine during their residency and time working with other doctors and healthcare providers. Doctors absorb the culture of those around them, even when the practices are not the best approach. One example is the culture of denial when confronted with medical errors. 

A study in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) looked at the willingness of primary care physicians to disclose oncology errors involving multiple providers. The study asked almost 300 physicians about a hypothetical medical error and how they would respond to patients. The examples included: 

  • “Delayed diagnosis of breast cancer, and
  • Care coordination breakdown causing a delayed response to patient symptoms. In both cases, multiple physicians shared responsibility for the error, and both involved oncology diagnoses.”

In both events, a majority of doctors would not fully disclose to patients what went wrong. This includes failing to disclose: 

  • An apology
  • An explanation
  • Information about the cause
  • Plans for preventing a recurrence

Personal responsibility and the seriousness of the injury made doctors even less likely to disclose the error. If doctors aren’t willing to give patients an explanation of what went wrong, what caused the error, and how to prevent it from happening again, how can we reduce the number of medical errors?

Failure to Disclose Doesn’t Improve Health Care

According to a study by Johns Hopkins researchers, medical errors are the third leading cause of death in America. Even with improvements in technology, medical science, and communication tools, medical errors still remain high. Making healthcare improvements requires learning from our mistakes. When we don’t admit to mistakes and don’t acknowledge anything went wrong, there won’t be any improvements. 

Unfortunately, mistakes in healthcare can mean life-changing problems, including paralysis, disability, loss of a limb, brain damage, or death. Many of these errors are preventable. However, they continue to happen, often involving the same doctors, the same hospitals, and the same preventable causes of injury. According to Johns Hopkins researchers, most fatal medical errors are caused by systemic problems in health care, including: 

  • Lack of accountability
  • The absence of safety nets
  • Poorly coordinated care
  • Fragmented insurance networks
  • Unwarranted variation in physician practice patterns 

If lack of accountability is one of the systemic problems in the 3rd leading cause of death in the U.S., it would make sense to look at accountability and why doctors and hospitals can’t make that simple change.

What Is Deny and Defend in Medical Errors?

Doctors have an ethical duty to disclose mistakes. However, in reality, that rarely happens. Many doctors, hospitals, and medical insurance providers have a policy known as “deny and defend.” Deny and defend is a strategy to reduce the risk of liability after a medical error. The doctor denies anything went wrong and if the patient pursues their case, the doctors defend themselves to avoid any liability for their mistakes. 

Medical providers use deny and defend to avoid liability in a medical malpractice lawsuit. However, according to a study by the University of Michigan, the opposite tends to be true. Communication and cooperation result in fewer medical malpractice lawsuits and lower the cost of litigation. “Proponents of full disclosure of errors have argued that such policies could actually decrease lawsuits by encouraging more open provider–patient communication and more fairly compensating patients for injuries.”

According to an article in the Baltimore Sun, there was a medical patient who became paralyzed after a medical problem during spinal surgery. A piece of medical equipment malfunctioned, causing permanent spinal injury. However, the patient was told about the error and the hospital worked with the patient to find a solution. The physician involved immediately apologized, took care of the medical bills, and worked out a long-term compensation plan. This avoided a long and expensive medical malpractice trial and the patient didn’t hold a grudge against the hospital, appreciating the open communication and patient-centered approach. 

Candor After Medical Errors

The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, has provided guidance for medical providers in communication after medical errors. In contrast to deny and defend, a more patient-centered approach can improve healthcare. 

“Communication and Optimal Resolution (CANDOR) is a process that health care institutions and practitioners can use to respond in a timely, thorough, and just way when unexpected events cause patient harm.”

There are 5 components of CANDOR, from identification to resolution. The process begins by identifying an unexpected harm to a patient, either physical, emotional, or financial. This triggers the process even if the exact cause of the harm is not known. After the event is identified, the doctor can respond to the event, disclose the harm, and investigate the cause of the problem. 

Response and disclosure provide support to both the patient and the caregiver. The error is communicated to the patient and family after the harm event. Clinicians and support staff impacted by the harm are also supported. Information about what happened is analyzed and that information is used to develop a plan to prevent the errors from happening again. 

After communicating with the patient, the doctor and patient together can determine how best to resolve the event. The resolution could involve additional medical care to correct the error and provide compensation to the patient and their family. 

Injury Victims Appreciate Honesty and Communication

Medical patients understand that mistakes can happen. The last thing an injury victim wants is for the doctor to hide their mistakes or try and blame someone else for what went wrong. Hiding mistakes can make things worse for the patient because it can take longer to resolve the injury and does nothing to prevent these events from happening again, even when they are easily avoided. 

According to the medical article, Non-Disclosure of Medical Errors an Egregious Violation of Ethical Principles, “failure to disclose is certainly associated with an increased desire to sue.” Patients may actually be more likely to sue if doctors don’t disclose errors. Denial as a policy to minimize litigation is not a good strategy. 

According to the CANDOR process, effective communication includes: 

  • Demonstrating empathy, sincerity, and honesty 
  • Active listening skills 
  • Patience during stressful situations
  • Emotional maturity and self-awareness
  • Speaking without using medical jargon and non-technical language 
  • Focusing on the patient’s and family’s interests 
  • Understanding when to seek additional support

Getting Doctors To Do the Right Thing

Doctors often know they have an ethical duty to patients to be open after a medical mistake. However, doctors still try to hide mistakes or mislead patients by asking about what went wrong. According to an article in the Journal of Graduate Medical Education, “Trust is an integral component of the physician-patient relationship. During the past 60 years, this trust has eroded to the point where physicians now trail nurses, pharmacists, and veterinarians in public reports of trust in various professions.”

The adversarial deny and defend approach changes the doctor-patient relationship to an adversarial and distant position. Some of the main reasons why patients sue doctors are to prevent the errors from happening again and to get an explanation. However, patients also just want the doctor to admit they made a mistake and have the doctor realize how the patient is feeling. An explanation and apology can help avoid a lawsuit. 

It can be human nature to deny making a mistake. However, doctors are not children found with a hand in the cookie jar. Doctors are medical professionals who have undergone years of education, testing, training, and on-the-job learning from other doctors. Still, more than a quarter of doctors admit they had made errors and not disclosed them to the patient or the patient’s family. Doctors may even try and rationalize their errors to treat them as an assumed risk or downplay the harm. 

How Do You Know If Your Doctor Made a Mistake?

If the doctor doesn’t tell you about a mistake and how it caused harm, how is the patient supposed to know it was a mistake? A medical injury can be a risk of treatment but medical negligence shouldn’t be an assumed risk. Some patients simply accept the doctor’s explanation that the injury was just a risk of medical care. Even if patients have questions about what might have happened, they may not pursue them because of the doctor’s obstructive behavior. 

If you are not sure if you were a victim of a medical error, you can’t rely on the doctor if they aren’t open and honest. You can talk to a medical malpractice professional who can review your medical record to identify possible errors. Medical malpractice attorneys and their medical experts understand the standards of care in medicine and can identify when a doctor deviates from the standard of care. A case review by a medical malpractice attorney can help you understand your legal options and let you know if your injuries were caused by a hidden mistake. 

How Do You Prove the Doctor Made a Mistake?

In a medical malpractice case, the injury victim can prove there was professional negligence by a breach of the standard of care. The standard of care is the ruler used to measure the quality, efficiency, and appropriateness of healthcare. The standard of care can be based on what other reasonable doctors in a similar situation would have done under similar circumstances. 

For example, if an oncologist found a suspicious lump during a mammography, the standard of care may be to order lab tests or diagnostics for more information. If an oncologist didn’t document the findings, didn’t order any follow-ups, and didn’t tell the patient what they found, that could increase the risk of delayed diagnosis of breast cancer for a patient. If an expert oncologist found the doctor deviated from the standards of care and that caused harm to the patient, that could be evidence of a breach of the doctor’s duty to the patient. 

What Should I Do if My Doctor Hides a Mistake

If your doctor is hiding a mistake, blaming it on something else, or failing to answer your questions, it could be a sign they know they did something wrong and will deny everything. This is not only a violation of the doctor’s ethical duty to the patient, but it can also be a case of medical malpractice. A medical malpractice lawsuit will help the patient get compensation for their injuries, to cover medical bills, lost income, and pain and suffering. 

Another benefit of a medical malpractice lawsuit is to get an explanation for what went wrong and help prevent similar errors in the future. If a doctor denies a mistake and isn’t held responsible, nothing will get fixed. A medical malpractice award will make the healthcare industry take notice and take steps to improve care, simply for the reason that they don’t want to have to pay up for another mistake.   

To understand how you can win your malpractice case, contact an experienced medical malpractice law firm for legal advice about your rights. A medical malpractice attorney can review your case and help you understand what went wrong and who was responsible. With an experienced attorney on your side, you can recover the maximum damages for your injuries. Contact a law firm that handles medical malpractice cases like yours. Contact Gilman & Bedigian online or at 800-529-6162 for a free consultation.

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