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One System's Journey in Creating a Disclosure and Apology Program

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Background: Patients experience adverse events more frequently than the public appreciates. A number of health systems have led the movement toward open, prompt, and compassionate disclosure of adverse events.

Implementation: In 2006 Baystate Health (BH) formed a disclosure advisory committee to design and implement an enhanced program to support prompt and skillful disclosure of adverse events. The proposed model for a disclosure and apology program resembled a consultation service, similar to a hospital ethics consultation service. BH hired an outside trainer to teach coaches/facilitators. Emotional support services were formalized and expanded not only for patients and families but also clinicians.

The Experience so Far: Implementation of a formal disclosure and apology program has placed internal pressure on the organization to more promptly determine causality of adverse events and to respond to patient/family requests for information and/or assistance. Root causes and degree of system culpability are often not clear early after an event and sometimes are debated among the clinical team and the trained coaches/facilitators and risk managers.

Discussion: After a medical error, patients and families expect the organization to make changes to the system to prevent other patients from being harmed by the same mistake. To minimize the chance that patients and families feel that their suffering has been “in vain,” health care systems will need to put systems in place to deliver on the promise to reduce the risk of future harm. Some of the challenges in sustaining such a program include the ability to promptly investigate, to accurately determine liability, to communicate empathetically even if unable to meet all patient/family expectations, and to ensure establishment of a just culture.

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: October 1, 2009

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  • Published monthly, The Joint Commission Journal on Quality and Patient Safety is a peer-reviewed publication dedicated to providing health professionals with the information they need to promote the quality and safety of health care. The Joint Commission Journal on Quality and Patient Safety invites original manuscripts on the development, adaptation, and/or implementation of innovative thinking, strategies, and practices in improving quality and safety in health care. Case studies, program or project reports, reports of new methodologies or new applications of methodologies, research studies on the effectiveness of improvement interventions, and commentaries on issues and practices are all considered.

    David W. Baker, MD, MPH, FACP, executive vice president for the Division of Healthcare Quality Evaluation at The Joint Commission, is the inaugural editor-in-chief of The Joint Commission Journal on Quality and Patient Safety.

    Also known as Joint Commission Journal on Quality Improvement and Joint Commission Journal on Quality and Safety
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