3 caveats to physician apology laws

A growing body of research suggests that physicians who apologize for bad outcomes are less likely to be sued for malpractice, but most doctors participating in a recent Medscape poll remain leery of saying they're sorry.

Even with apology laws, which exist in 36 states, apologizing to patients and family members can be risky, an article in Medscape Business of Medicine noted. To increase the odds that your words won't make matters worse, consider the following tips:

  • Understand your state law. Most apology laws aim to reduce liability risks of apologizing by prohibiting certain statements, expressions, or other evidence related to disclosure from being admissible in a lawsuit. However, most states protect expressions of sympathy or empathy only--not admissions of fault. Further, apology laws don't protect physicians from disciplinary action from their state's medical board.
  • Discern greed from grief. If a plaintiff is truly motivated by money, apologizing can be akin to "handing the case to the patient's attorney on a silver platter," according to Victor Cotton, M.D., J.D., president of Law and Medicine, a company that provides accredited CME/CE regarding medicolegal issues. But Doug Wojciezsak, founder and director of Sorry Works! LLC, a company that teaches physicians and nurses how to disclose and apologize, told Medscape that this mindset is rare. "Malpractice suits are about communication and relationships, not money," he said. In these circumstances, what patients and families are really looking for is acknowledgement of their loss and assurance that action is being taken to keep the mistake from recurring.
  • Conduct a thorough review of an adverse event as quickly as possible. Not only is this assessment necessary to determine whether the standard of care was breached and why, but it will also help families feel reassured that you care about investigating and correcting the problem. What's more, many attorneys won't take a case when there has been a thorough review and an open disclosure policy, Wojciezsak said.

To learn more:
- read the article from Medscape Business of Medicine
- here's the poll