Physicians who have made medical errors have traditionally been warned against apologizing to a patient's loved ones. This is due to the fear that such expressions of regret would be understood as admissions of liability.
A new law passed in Pennsylvania will permit physicians to apologize for mistakes without the fear that their remarks will be used against them in future litigation. The Benevolent Gesture Medical Professional Liability Act was signed into law by Governor Tom Corbett on October 23rd, after years of debate surrounding the issue.
Here are some things to keep in mind about the law:
- It may reduce the number of malpractice suits filed in Pennsylvania: In many instances, patients or their relatives sue physicians because they are seeking closure. When a loved one dies during a medical procedure and there is little explanation as to what went wrong or why, it can leave the deceased's relatives and friends with little choice but to proceed with litigation. If the treating physician feels comfortable talking openly and honestly to the patient's loved ones and expresses sympathy for their loss, it could reduce the number of people who sue for closure.
- The law does not provide immunity for “admissions of guilt”: A doctor saying, “I'm sorry about what happened to your brother during surgery,” is not the same as his taking legal responsibility for a medical mistake. Patients and their relatives should not expect to receive statements that implicate the doctors legally. Physicians will still avoid saying anything that specifically admits to negligence or malpractice.
- The law may benefit both sides: Traditionally lawyers' groups and medical associations have been in conflict over legislation like this, but the bill seems to have brought the 2 sides together. Both the Pennsylvania Medical Society and the Pennsylvania Association of Justice came out in support of the law. One reason for the surprising coalition is that the law could result in a win-win for all those affected by it.
Patients and their families will feel that the misery they have suffered through has been acknowledged in a respectful way and doctors will be free to act like the compassionate human beings most of them aspire to be. Lastly, meritorious cases can still be brought.
In passing the law, Pennsylvania became the 35th state to enact some form of “ Medical Apology ” law. In most of the states that have such a law, there has been a decline in the filing of malpractice suits, with few negative consequences reported. If the results of the Pennsylvania law prove similar, it is likely that additional states may take up legislation like this in the near future.