MORE than 30 hospitals have now signed up to a policy of "open disclosure", promising direct and honest communication with patients when things go wrong.
The promise of frank and open discussion after harm or injury to a patient comes in the wake of recent revelations that a number of parents whose babies died from lack of oxygen in Portlaoise Hospital over six years were not given proper answers and were unaware internal reviews of the deaths had taken place.
Around 31 hospitals are piloting the policy, including Portlaoise. They will now be subject to an external review to assess how they are putting it into practice.
Guidelines were issued in November which tell patients that a member of staff will "speak honestly and openly" as soon as possible after the event, saying what happened, and outlining your "condition and your ongoing care plan".
It adds: "Remember that all the facts in relation to what has happened may not be available at this time so staff may not be able to answer all of your questions until a later date."
Ann Duffy, the clinical risk adviser at the State Claims Agency, who trains hospital staff on open disclosure, admitted that it will take years to embed this change of culture in hospitals, but the aim is to communicate clearly with a patient and their family within 48 hours of the incident.
The guidelines – which have yet to be underpinned with legislation which would make open disclosure mandatory – were based on the experience of hospitals abroad.
She said the first hospitals to pilot the policy were the Mater in Dublin and Cork University Hospital but training had now been rolled out to many more.
The evidence from some other countries is that it has led to a fall in legal actions taken by patients and this will be assessed here in the years to come.
Justice Minister Alan Shatter has promised the open disclosure legislation and said he believes that "if hospitals were to investigate an incident and to admit liability quickly once medical negligence had been established, such reform would be much more beneficial to families."
Other hospitals which have signed up to the pilot programme include: Beaumont Hospital; Kerry General Hospital, Tralee; Galway University Hospital; Connolly Hospital; Wexford General Hospital; Letterkenny General Hospital; Sligo Regional Hospital; Tallaght Hospital; Our Lady of Lourdes Drogheda and Cavan and Monaghan hospitals.
Commenting on proposals to introduce legislation, Michael Boylan, a medical injuries lawyer, said he was very happy to hear the announcement.
"For far too long, patients have remained in total ignorance of medical accidents which have harmed them and which the hospitals and medical professionals are fully aware of but which the patient knew nothing about," he said.
"They have been caused huge additional distress and injury by a pervading culture of silence, sometimes cover-up and a policy of deny and defend," he added.