Should Doctors Be Allowed to Apologize?

January 19, 2014 | Charles Bowen

should doctors be allowed to apologizePennsylvania recently implemented a new law that says that a doctor’s apology cannot be used against them later in the event of a medical malpractice lawsuit. Proponents of the measure say they believe that it will reduce instances of medical malpractice litigation now that physicians can communicate with patients without the fear that apologies will be used against them. Georgia already has such a law on the books (O.C.G.A. § 24-3-37.1).

The legislators who backed the measure say they did so because a lack of open communication between doctors and patients often exacerbates already bad situations. The hope is that by removing the fear that sympathetic remarks could later be twisted against doctors, as an admission of guilt, there can be more honest communication after something goes wrong. The hope is that with doctors feeling more comfortable apologizing, it will go a long way to reducing anger among patients and ultimately lowering the number of medical malpractice lawsuits.

An example given by a newspaper article concerns a Pennsylvania woman who suffered from long and intense pain related to an undiagnosed kidney stone. The woman says her doctor ignored her complaints for months, brushing them off as exaggerations. Finally, the doctor relented and performed a scan that identified the large kidney stones. The woman said she never received an apology or even an explanation from the doctor, something she said would have gone a long way to reducing her anger and frustration following the incident. Though she considered filing suit, she never did and says that she would have been much less likely to even entertain the idea had the doctor properly addressed his mistakes.

Pennsylvania’s medical apology law will be similar to those already in place in 36 other states. The law says that doctors who apologize to patients do not need to fear that the apology will later be used as an admission of guilt in a future lawsuit. However, this does nothing to protect doctors from legitimate medical malpractice suits; it only prevents them from having their apologies turned against them.

The real question is whether the medical apology laws actually make a difference. Some studies have shown that they do, with heartfelt apologies appearing to calm angry patients and their families. One study conducted by the University of Michigan Health Systems found that in the years after the state passed its own medical apology law, the number of medical malpractice lawsuits filed against the hospital dropped by an astounding 50 percent. This reduction in medical malpractice claims saved the hospital $2 million a year in litigation expenses. If the Michigan results are typical, then it appears that saying sorry really does help and that doctors in Pennsylvania better start practicing their apologies.

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