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Complaints inspired by concern for future patients

May 31, 2006

Most medical complaints are motivated by concern for future patients

Latest research by medical law expert Dr Marie Bismark shows that most people who file a complaint with the Health and Disability Commissioner are hoping to protect others from similar harm.

Dr Bismark, a senior solicitor in law firm Buddle Findlay, told a healthcare mediation symposium in Auckland today (Wednesday, May 31) that people who took medico-legal action after a medical injury had a range of motivations, including a desire for compensation, correction, communication or sanction.

"Money may provide compensation at one level, but it does not satisfy a person's interest in knowing what is being done to prevent a recurrence of an event that may have cost a person's life," she says.

"Research shows that even among complainants who have suffered the death of a friend or family member through an adverse medical event, the level of goodwill, forgiveness, and altruism is striking.

"For example, the daughter of a woman who died of undiagnosed liver cancer wrote: 'If lessons can be learned that would be a good thing. I miss my mum immensely and do this in her memory to help raise the standard of health in our beautiful country'."

Dr Bismark's research findings are attracting the attention of US medical and legal experts concerned about the excesses of America's litigious approach to medical malpractice approach. In the American medical malpractice system, monetary damages are often the only form of accountability available to patients.

"The American system is very expensive – some doctors are paying upwards of $100,000 for professional indemnity insurance – yet it frequently fails to recognize patients' needs for an apology, explanation, or safer care.

"My research adds weight to earlier international findings that, for many injured patients, it's not just about the money."

In New Zealand, no-fault compensation is available through ACC, while the Health and Disability Commissioner can provide patients with an explanation of what went wrong, recommend an apology, and take steps to protect future patients.

"By offering both monetary compensation, through ACC, and non-monetary forms of accountability, through HDC, the New Zealand system does a much better job of meeting injured patients needs than American-style medical malpractice litigation."

• Marie Bismark was a 2004-2005 Harkness Fellow in Healthcare Policy at the Department of Health . She is focusing on medical-legal issues working at national law firm Buddle Findlay.


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