Doctors who admit mistakes know best

An adversarial approach to complaints prolongs pain for families and increases the taxpayer’s bill, say advocates


Two patients’ advocacy organisations will join in calling for “candour” from the HSE, hospitals and health professionals when facing up to cases of medical negligence.

Action Against Medical Accidents (Avma) and the Medical Injuries Alliance (Mia) will host a one-day conference in Dublin next week, Patients’ Rights, Access to Justice and the Case for Candour.

The two groups say the adversarial approach taken by the health system when health professionals’ mistakes result in injury or death prolongs the pain for victims of such negligence and also results in higher costs to the taxpayer than necessary. Michael Boylan, the founder of Mia, says it also means the wider medical community does not learn from the mistakes of colleagues.

He cites the way in which questions about possible mistakes, when voiced by patients or their loved ones, are typically met with silence, stone-walling, a “circling of the wagons” and, in some cases he has come across, denial and lies.

Costs mounting
“It means the victim or their family has to go through a prolonged process of searching out records, getting a solicitor and probably having to endure years of fighting to know the truth of what happened, with costs mounting all this time, which usually will have to be paid by the taxpayer in the end,” he says.

And nobody learns from the mistake because it is all kept as much under wraps as possible.

“Whereas if a doctor, knowing they have screwed up, were to come to the family, admit what has happened, apologise and ensure the family is looked after with compensation, rehabilitation or whatever they need, everyone involved could heal more quickly,” says Boylan.

He agrees the State cannot afford a “no-fault” system when dealing with medical injuries, but argues greater openness and willingness to face up to responsibility would in fact be no more expensive than the current “defend and deny” approach that causes so much prolonged pain.

‘Good results’
Among those who will address the conference is Dr Timothy McDonald, chief safety and risk officer for health affairs at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Dr McDonald was an adviser to Barack Obama when the future US president was an Illinois senator. He will outline the “good results” achieved in Illinois hospitals under a system such as that advocated by Mia and Avma. “The cost of compensation has not gone up,” says Boylan.

Other speakers will include Supreme Court judge Mr Justice Liam McKechnie, Ann Duffy of the State Claims Agency, and Moore McDowell, senior lecturer at the UCD school of economics.

The Patients’ Rights, Access to Justice and the Case for Candour conference takes place at the Morrison Hotel, from 9.15am on Monday, 4th November. See or for details.

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