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One of the worst consequences of our increasingly litigious society in the United States is the growing obsolescence of apologies. Many people live and act from a fear of being sued, leading them to take actions to cover up their mistakes rather than take responsibility for them, apologize and try to help in the healing process of those who have been harmed.

Our legal system emphasizes our differences, turning us into adversaries, rather than helping us see ourselves as part of the Quilt of Humanity in which harm to one is harm to all. When we make mistakes, attorneys advise us to defend ourselves rather than apologize to avoid costly liability.

A May 18, 2008 article in the New Times by Kevin Sack, Doctors Say “I’m Sorry” Before “See You in Court,” illustrates how different life could be if we acted from a place of responsibility and empathy, rather than fear of litigation. The article discusses the way Dr. Tapas K. Das Gupta, a respected cancer surgeon, mistakenly removed the wrong piece of tissue during a surgical procedure.

Rather than run to the hospital lawyers to protect him against liability, he spoke with his patient, acknowledged his mistake, and apologized sincerely. Dr. Gupta’s response is in line with a new approach that a number of hospitals area taking. They have taken this approach because they have come to understand that a prompt apology and disclosure of medical errors along with an offer of fair compensation leads to better results in a number of ways.

The “deny and defend” approach has led to costly litigation, concealment of mistakes, and angry patients. Hospitals taking the new approach, on the other hand, how found that it defuses patient anger and enables hospitals to learn from their mistakes and take action to prevent similar ones. And, the number of lawsuits against these hospitals has dropped.

Often the very thing we fear is often what we create when we act from a place of fear and defensiveness. The actions of Dr. Gupta and others shows that perhaps the best “defense” is to have the courage to take responsibility and face our fears head on. This enables doctors to maintain a relationship of candor and trust with their patients rather than destroying relationships and eroding trust by concealing and denying mistakes.

And, just as important, acknowledgment and an apology helps the patient heal physically and emotionally, rather than have to be eaten up by anger and resentment and endure a costly, and often painful, litigation process.

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