By Dr. David Mayer

First Posted on Educate the Young on 1/30/2014

David Mayer MD, Vice President of Quality and Safety for MedStar Health

David Mayer MD, Vice President of Quality and Safety for MedStar Health

Larry Smith, Vice President of Risk Management at MedStar Health, is a true pioneer – one of a small number of leaders in healthcare who have developed early communication and resolution programs when harm from medical error occurs. Programs like University of Michigan led by Rick Boothman and Susan Anderson, University of Illinois led by Tim McDonald and Nikki Centomani, and MedStar Health led by Larry Smith and Steve Evans have long moved from a ”deny and defend” approach to medical errors to one of open and honest communication. These programs have been able to bring closure and healing to all parties involved while using the court system and the long, difficult battles that result where no really wins except maybe the attorneys as a last resort.

This week, Larry recruited not only his own team of insightful and skilled Risk Managers, but also plaintiff attorney, Paul Bekman, Esq., defense attorney, Michael Flynn, Esq., and the Honorable Howard Chasanow, former Maryland Supreme Court Justice and now a full-time mediator, to participate in MedStar Health’s Quality, Safety & Risk Management retreat. It may sound like an unlikely gathering of peers to many, but for Larry, the only way to move towards the “just culture” required of high reliability organizations is to continue to unite those whom often seem disunited.

As the panel of experts shared what really occurs in court rooms in the aftermath of a medical error, all attendees gained a deeper understanding of the complexities inherent to managing a healthcare system. At a time when patients and caregivers are caught up in the pain, uncertainty and fear related to what is often a life-changing event, the medical-legal piece can either remove, or compound, the emotional, physical and financial costs involved. One thing many of the attendees learned was that when a patient forfeits control, and ultimately a say in the final decision of such an intimate and painful event, to a jury of peers with what can be at times an attorney not well-versed or well-intended when it comes to medical-legal matters, additional problems can be created for all involved. Claims filed often cost health systems millions of dollars, and patients many times do not receive what they truly deserve when cases are handed over to the courts. Judge Chasanow was truly inspirational and shared that true healing for all can be found through skillful mediation led by those knowledgeable in the intricacies of medical harm events–especially when led by those who have the patient and family’s best interest as the top priority. He also shared the amazing healing power that can result from two words –”I’m sorry”. When offered in a sincere and meaningful manner, anger and tension seem to dissipate and true progress towards closure and healing through mediation can begin for all.

Moving forward, we have two options:

Or a second option. A few years ago, Transparent Health put together a short trailer for a longer piece of work that sums up another approach to managing medical errors and the harm that can come from them. When harm is managed openly, honestly and with transparency, healing can begin. Here is that short clip:

Healthcare remains at a crossroad. If we are to truly achieve a Culture of Safety and drive towards Zero Harm, we must embrace open and honest communication, practice just culture principles that balance systems and process breakdowns with reckless personal accountability, and follow the wise words of Carole Hemmelgarn who so eloquently said it should always be ”Patient first, last and everything in between”.