Nov 26, 2010

Gut Check: University of Michigan's Medical Error Disclosure Program

We're all familiar with the story of George Washington and the cherry tree that gave rise to the famous line, "I cannot tell a lie, father, you know I cannot tell a lie!"

What motivated him to tell the truth? Was it some sort of rumbling gut feeling that told him that it was the right thing to do? Probably the same motivating forces that led the University of Michigan Health System (UMHS) to transition to a medical error disclosure program that is fully integrated with the hospital's quality improvement and patient safety efforts in 2001.

Unfortunately, our health care world today is one in which we don't follow George Washington's leadership. Medical malpractice is guided by a "deny and defend" approach. Insurers and counsels often urge secrecy, dispute fault, deflect responsibility, and make it as slow and expensive as possible for patients to continue the already unfavorable process. As a result of this approach, it's not uncommon for medical lawsuits to take five or more years to resolve. Information about the cause of injuries is also denied to patients and families for long periods of time; and compensation is unavailable to those who most need it. Worst of all, there is little meaningful quality feedback for providers. Patients and providers are placed in adversarial positions, allowing fear to fester in between.

Turning the current, "deny and defend" approach to medical liability on its head, the current system at UMHS emphasizes full honesty and transparency between staff and patients and encourages the participation of risk management, regardless if a medical error is involved. At UMHS medical errors are identified and collected by all staff, patients, and family members. Experienced risk managers with a clinical background investigate the claims, and care quality is evaluated. The system's three guiding principles are:
    1. Compensate quickly and fairly when unreasonable medical care causes injury.
    2. Defend medically reasonable care vigorously.
    3. Reduce patient injuries (and therefore claims) by learning from patient's experiences
Most importantly, conclusions of the investigation are shared.

We were fortunate to have Rick Boothman, UMHS Chief Risk Officer, join the University of Michigan's IHI Open School for our first Monthly Speaker Series event of the year to discuss UMHS's medical error disclosure program. Boothman's presentation was focused on the underlying principles of quality improvement that help inform the disclosure program.

Boothman's extensive experience as a trial lawyer has given him a strong and intuitive sense about cases that he can almost accurately predict if he can win a case. But, he does what he refers to as a "gut check." Would he accept this kind of care for his own mother?

The undercurrent of quality improvement has led to some great results. As reported in the Annals of Internal Medicine in a paper written by Allen Kachalia et. al., with implementation of UMHS's disclosure-with-offer program, the average monthly rate of new claims decreased from 7.03 to 4.52 per 100,000 patient encounters. The average monthly rate of lawsuits decreased from 2.13 to 0.75 per 100,000 patient encounters. The median time from claim reporting to resolution decreased from 1.36 to 0.95 years. Average monthly cost rates decreased for total liability, patient compensation, and non-compensation-related legal costs.

A system that makes patients and physicians happier...and saves money at the same time? My gut is telling me that this is a system that we should take a look at.