Personal Injury, Serious Injury & Clinical Negligence

How to say sorry!

Guidelines were unveiled yesterday setting out how the medical profession should deal with the “Duty of Candour”.

It will come as something of a surprise to many members of the public that until the introduction of this legal duty, doctors and other medical professionals were under no obligation to inform a patient if their treatment had gone wrong or if the patient had suffered injury as a result of that treatment. It was considered professionally acceptable to tell the patient nothing.

Even more surprising is the strong resistance put up by clinicians to the introduction of the new rules. Apparently there is a concern that it will give rise to more complaints and legal claims. The patient’s right to know what has happened to them is considered by some in the medical profession as secondary to the doctor’s right to protect their reputation.

In reality, honesty at the time of a medical error is more likely to reduce complaints and claims. An open apology for an honest error at the time that it is made is often all that a patient requires. Discovering weeks, months or even years later that they have been subjected to substandard medical treatment only serves to increase a patient’s anger that the facts have been withheld from them and heightens the level of mistrust about what they are subsequently told.

The fact that the new guidelines need to explain how to say “sorry” is indicative of the failure of the complaints process to date. Enlightened doctors and hospital Trusts who proffer an early and sincere apology often see an end to the matter.

The practice of some Trusts, who are “sorry to note that you are unhappy about your treatment”, is unacceptable, it is not a meaningful nor genuine apology.

It is hoped that the Duty of Candour and an improvement in standards of care will drive down the cost of legal proceedings in clinical negligence cases. If more care was taken to avoid harming patients, fewer cases would arise. Recently announced plans to cut legal fees alone are merely a means of denying the injured justice, adding insult to injury.

If you have suffered substandard medical treatment and are unhappy with the response you have received contact Chris Thorne, Partner in the Clinical Negligence team at Clarke Willmott LLP, who would be happy to discuss matters.