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Doctors urged to say 'sorry'

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Access Legal from Shoosmiths is backing calls from two senior medical advisers who want doctors to say 'sorry' to patients when they have made a mistake.

"Injured patients who simply want an explanation and an apology come to lawyers because they have no where else to turn" - Richard Follis, Partner 

Dr Anthea Martin and Dr Gail Gilmartin, senior medical advisers with the Medical and Dental Defence Union of Scotland (MDDUS), said on the BBC website's Scrubbing Up column that 'sorry' needn't be the hardest word.

Richard Follis, Access Legal from Shoosmiths partner and national head of medical negligence, agrees: "I strongly support the comments made by these Defence Union doctors.

"Despite the NHS talking for years about openness and learning from mistakes, the reality can be very different for patients injured by medial accidents."

The MDDUS advisers say the days of 'unquestioning respect for doctors' have gone. Though many families don't want to take matters to law, they are driven to it when hospitals refuse to explain mistakes and apologise for errors.

Doctors, they stated, worry that saying 'sorry' might imply an admission of liability and see patients making a claim, or leave them open to action by the General Medical Council.

Doctors Martin and Gilmartin believe 'an appropriate and well-delivered explanation and apology has been shown to be effective in diffusing complaints and preventing their escalation'.

They said: "In one recent case a child was administered the same vaccine twice in error by his general practice. A letter written by the GP was sent to the child's parents expressing the surgery's regret and providing a full explanation of what went wrong and how systems would be changed to prevent it happening again. The parents were satisfied with this and took no further action."

However, Richard Follis said: "The public perception remains that many doctors close ranks. For the injured patient finding out what went wrong, and why, often feels like drawing teeth. The complaints procedure is too often bureaucratic and slow to explain why things go wrong and to admit errors.

"Some hospitals are unlikely to own up to a glaring surgical error, for example, simply because a patient didn't ask about exactly the thing that went wrong.

"Injured patients who simply want an explanation and an apology come to lawyers because they have no where else to turn. Attitudes harden considerably when their concerns are not openly addressed. Worse still, they feel fobbed off.

"Money is not the point of the exercise for many injured and bereaved. But refuse to take their concerns seriously, put up smokescreens or fail to be open and honest, and injured patients will become litigants pursuing medical negligence claims. The search for a proper explanation will be taken to the courts, which could in many cases have been avoided.

"Unfortunately, although some hospitals and doctors are up front about errors and demonstrate very good practice, many do not. NHS resources will continue to be taken up and patient confidence eroded if untoward incidents are not explained quickly and frankly."

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