By Simon Wilson, senior solicitor and medical negligence expert at Neil Hudgell Solicitors
Recent comments by Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, that doctors and nurses should be more open and honest when things go wrong and “say sorry” to patients immediately struck a chord with me.
Not only would a timely apology help build trust in the NHS, as Mr Hunt wishes, it could potentially save the organisation a lot of money and time. At present, large amounts of both are invested in investigating complaints and paying compensation to patients who’ve suffered medical negligence. But, in my experience, many of the complaints would not be lodged in the first place if the doctor or medic involved had simply said “sorry”.
Around 50% of my clients with medical negligence claims say they wouldn’t pursue litigation if they had received a timely apology. They tell me that they accept that doctors are human and so can make errors. Among these clients are people who’ve suffered serious injury or incapacitation; these are patients living every day with the outcomes of a clinical blunder or poor care.
But the misjudgement that patients find hardest to accept is medics who do not or will not apologise. Consequently, often a client’s decision to take legal action is motivated by anger and frustration at this fundamental discourtesy and a perception that medics are aloof, unfeeling and unrepentant.
Some medics or care providers argue that if they were to say sorry they would also be admitting liability and risking having to pay out more compensation. This is wrong: to say sorry is not to admit negligence. Instead an apology demonstrates compassion for a patient. In addition, if coupled by an undertaking to put right the mistake or ensure it isn’t repeated, saying sorry can be sufficient remedy for many patients and their loved ones. As clients have told me, they would then be less likely to try to claim compensation.
Clearly, this shows that expressing regret early on for mistakes can greatly reduce the likelihood of a claim being made. More than that, if a claim is pursued, it can also cut the cost of the claims process. It can help to minimise the legal time, spent by lawyers for both claimant and defendant, to investigate the complaint. Crucially, it can also avoid recourse to court and the associated costs.
In short, for many of my medical negligence clients, it’s true that “Sorry seems to be the hardest word” for doctors and other carers. As a result, sorry is also proving an unnecessarily costly word for the NHS.