Doctors, lawyers, and administrators at a suburban Philadelphia hospital are collaborating on a mediation program they hope will keep many malpractice cases out of court.


“The current system of trying to resolve disputes just doesn’t work,” observes task force chairman Mark Lopatin, MD. “There’s no healing. Money may change hands, but a lot of hostility is aroused with everyone looking out for their own interests.”

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Three years ago, Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court asked each county to seek alternatives to lawsuits.


The Pennsylvania Medical Society was already looking into the issue on its own and soon formed a task force consisting of the Montgomery County Medical Society, the Montgomery Bar Asso-ciation and Abington Memorial Hospital, about 16 miles north of Philadelphia.


The two-tiered pilot program that was devised was formally launched March 4. The first level aims for an “early intervention,” Dr. Lopatin explains. Disgruntled patients will meet with doctors and nurses who have been specially trained in conflict resolution and communication skills.


“We hope to avoid disputes at the outset,” he says. “Often, a patient just wants to know what happened. They will hopefully get factual information to answer their questions.”

If the problem is more serious, then a formal mediation process will begin. A mediator will work with all parties—and their attorneys—to come to an acceptable solution, which may involve financial compensation.


Unlike arbitration, however, mediation is not binding. If the parties fail to agree, they can always go to court.


“What distinguishes this program is the mindset: ‘Healing through mediation,’” Dr. Lopatin says. “The idea is not just to come up with a fair dollar amount, but to alleviate the suffering of both the patient and the doctor—because in these situations, the doctor suffers, too.”


The pilot project is open-ended and will probably last a few years. It will be continually evaluated with follow-up questionnaires for everyone who participates.


“We’re trying to resolve the hostility inherent in our legal system,” Dr. Lopatin adds. “This is not how we teach our children to resolve conflicts. We teach them to say I’m sorry, to forgive, to compromise, to work things out. As grown-ups, we should do no less.”