Page last updated at 01:17 GMT, Friday, 20 November 2009

NHS told to apologise to patients for errors

Patients in a hospital
NHS trusts are encouraged to report incidents that put patients at risk

The NHS should learn to say sorry to patients when mistakes are made, a health watchdog says.

The National Patient Safety Agency, which monitors errors in England, said a simple apology can even reduce formal complaints and legal action.

The group has also issued a number of tips to NHS trusts in a bid to create a more open culture about mistakes.

The Action Against Medical Accidents patient group said "Being open when things go wrong" was important.

The NPSA runs a voluntary system to which NHS trusts can report when mistakes are made.

Making a genuine apology to a patient and their family after an error has occurred is a very hard thing to do for any clinician
Martin Fletcher, of the National Patient Safety Agency

The idea is to learn from what the health service gets wrong to improve care in the future.

Over the last six months it received nearly 500,000 reports.

Of these, more than 5,700 were classed as serious - either resulting in death or permanent harm.

Errors in treatment and medication as well as patient accidents were the most common.

The watchdog said patients would often feel much better if staff just owned up to the error and said sorry.

NPSA chief executive Martin Fletcher said: "Being open is the right thing to do."

But he acknowledged it was not easy.

"Making a genuine apology to a patient and their family after an error has occurred is a very hard thing to do for any clinician."

The watchdog said NHS trusts could help create a more open culture by getting senior doctors to encourage colleagues to take such steps.

It also said a board-level commitment to openness could help.

Legal action

In the past, it has been suggested that staff were afraid of apologising as it may be used in future legal action or as a basis for complaints.

But the NPSA said evidence from other countries suggested it could actually reduce the risk.

Peter Walsh, of Action Against Medical Accidents, said: "Being open when things go wrong is the most important thing for patients and makes sense from everyone's point of view."

Dr James Armstrong, of the Medical Defence Union, a group which insures doctors, added they should not shy away from admitting mistakes.

"Doctors have an ethical obligation to offer an apology and an explanation if something has gone wrong and there is no legal reason not to do so."

And Sir Bruce Keogh, the NHS medical director, said being honest "was the right thing to do".

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