NHS staff told to say 'I am sorry' to patients for medical mistakes

29 June 2015

NHS staff told to say 'I am sorry' to patients for medical mistakes

NHS staff told to say 'I am sorry' to patients for medical mistakes

Doctors, nurses and midwives must now offer a swift apology and explanation to those patients injured by medical mistakes during treatment, says new guidance: but will it be enough?

Under new guidance published today doctors, nurses and midwives will have to offer patients face-to-face apologies when medical mistakes happen, saying that they are personally sorry for the errors that occurred. The new rules are designed to make the NHS more honest and hold medical professionals to account. Whether this will stem the number of medical negligence compensation claims is uncertain, especially where there has been a high degree of medical mistreatment and medical negligence.

The three professions contain 920,000 members and now all of them must now offer a genuine apology and explanation to the patient when things go wrong. One of the most common complaints members of the public say to Mistreatment.com when they enquire with us, is that they felt hurt and let down by not even receiving an initial apology or explanation.

For example, if a patient is given the wrong drug, the new guidance should mean those injured by medical mistreatment errors are told straight away about what went wrong and what harm may have been suffered. This would cover all the UK’s 234,000 doctors and 686,000 nurses and midwives.

Will medical negligence claims necessarily reduce or increase?

The General Medical Council (GMC) and the Nursing and Midwifery Council, which regulate doctors and nurses/midwives respectively, feel that these heartfelt and genuine apologies will help patients overcome their distress and anxiety. It may not, however, stop these patients bringing forward a medical negligence compensation claim but is a step towards fostering better relationships between patient and medical professional.

 “Patients are likely to find it more meaningful if you offer a personalised apology – for example ‘I am sorry …’ – rather than a general expression of regret about the incident on the organisation’s behalf,” says the guidance, which was prompted by the Mid Staffordshire care scandal.

All medical mistakes and harm to be disclosed

“Saying ‘I am sorry’ is intuitive. You want to avoid saying, for example, ‘my trust regrets’ or ‘the organisation that I work for regrets’. These could be seen by patients as slightly weasel words. They want a personal apology and for the doctor or the team to show genuine contrition,” said Professor Terence Stephenson, an eminent paediatrician who is the GMC’s chairman.

While some patients may not seek to pursue a medical negligence claim against the NHS after receiving an apology or told the truth about safety lapses, there is no guarantee that this guidance will reduce the rising number of medical negligence claims that Mistreatment.com has seen in the last few years.

The guidance seeks to reassure staff by emphasising that apologising “doesn’t mean that we expect you to take personal responsibility for system failures or other people’s mistakes”.

According to research, between 10%-20% of patients suffer some harm as a direct result of receiving medical treatment, especially in hospital. Mistreatment.com has seen this range from minor damage and complaints but also mistakes which are far more serious, such as the wrong part of the body being operated on or negligent surgery. Due to the guidance ALL medical mistakes and such harm will have to be disclosed.

Failure to comply with this guidance might mean that if there is a complaint, there conduct will be judged far more harshly if their conduct is legally held up to scrutiny. Mistreatment.com hopes that the guidance will make it much more difficult for any doctor, nurse or midwife who keep quiet about any failings: but will it mean they will feel that it is less likely that they will be sued because they admitted to the initial mistake?

Respond honestly to questions

When explaining that a problem has occurred NHS staff must “share all you know and believe to be true … [and] respond honestly to any questions” whether an investigation is still ongoing or not. They should use plain English, not medical jargon, and ensure they do not answer their mobile phone or pager during the conversation so the patient knows they are taking it seriously, Stephenson added.

The move was backed by the Royal College of Physicians, which represents the UK’s 30,000 hospital doctors, and the Medical Defence Union, which represents doctors accused of wrongdoing. Dr Michael Devlin, its head of professional standards and liaison, said it had been advising doctors for over 50 years to tell the patient and apologise as soon as they became aware of a mishap.

But the British Medical Association, the doctors’ union, voiced concern. “Any suggestion of an enforced apology where there is a dispute over where fault lies would be inappropriate. Research shows that most poor outcomes are due to system rather than individual failures. Apologies in these circumstances should be couched in those terms if we are to have a process that is truthful and appropriate”, said Dr Mark Porter, its chair of council.

Patient Care Options

Have you or a loved one wanted to raise a complaint with the NHS  regarding medical mistreatment relating to the care of your child or loved one or medical mistreatment that has been experienced at a NHS hospital or even at a private hospital? Our specialist teams can provide FREE advice about what your options are, whether you want to make a medical negligence claim or medical mistreatment complaint or simply to better understand what your patient rights. You can contact us here today for  a no-obligation and completely free conversation to discuss what happened to you.