Over the many years I have been representing victims of medical malpractice, I have found that almost never will anyone inform the patient that he or she has been the victim of malpractice. The sole exception is when a foreign object is left behind. It is pretty difficult to pretend that the presence of a foreign object left behind in the body is just one of those things that happen from time to time through the fault of no one. There aren’t very many foreign objects left behind so, in the vast majority of malpractice cases, the patient is on her or his own in figuring out what happened
So where do medical ethics fit into all of this? Doctors have an ethical duty to be honest with their patients. Only under certain limited circumstances can they withhold information from their patients. Each of those limited circumstances requires that the withholding of the information be in the best interest of the patient. It is unethical for a doctor to withhold information from the patient for the benefit of the doctor. As you can see, there is no ethical justification for a doctor to fail to inform her patient that they have been injured by a medical mistake and yet it happens every day of the week in every large hospital in this country and probably twice on Sundays.
Doctors like to posture about how honest and ethical they are. Sadly, for many of them, they are only honest and ethical when it suits their interests. If honesty is going to require financial sacrifice, or embarrassment or the admission of a mistake, they are not going to be quite so honest and open.
Doctors are almost always held in high regard in society. Many of them are paid very well for the services they provide. They live in nice houses and drive fancy cars. They also want society to give them privileges that are not given to other professions or to the rest of the general public. For example, throughout the United States doctors routinely ask that they be given special treatment when it comes to lawsuits. They want to limit the rights of the patients who get injured by medical negligence. As a general rule, doctors win about 80-85% of malpractice cases that go to trial. It is hard to convince a jury to find against a doctor. When a patient does manage to convince a jury to award them damages because of medical malpractice, doctors want to have those damages limited, so that they can put more money in their pockets. The fact that they spread money around at the state legislature and make large campaign contributions doesn’t hurt when it comes to asking for these special privileges. There is also often an implied threat that doctors will go elsewhere to practice medicine, if they are not given special privileges.
Another reason doctors claim they are entitled to special privileges is because they are the real victims when a malpractice suit is brought. Not only do they hide their malpractice from their patients when it occurs, they claim that there is really very little malpractice in the first place. Their unethical behavior in withholding information from their patients about why they are damaged, is used as evidence of the absence of malpractice in general. They claim malpractice rarely occurs and that suits against them are frivolous.
It is not just the malpracticing doctor who unethically hides information from his patient. His fellow doctors go right along. In today’s world of medicine, there are so many doctors involved in the care of a patient that it is an unusual case in which a number of doctors are not aware when something goes wrong and why. Yet no one says a word. These honest and ethical pillars of society keep their mouths closed and leave the patient to fend for herself.
I guess it is asking too much of these honest and ethical doctors that they actually be honest with their patients. Just don’t walk around taking bows for being so ethical when you are only looking out for yourself.