Ohio ruling bolsters support for avoiding malpractice suits via apologies

Legal cases
Statutes disallowing the use of a physician's apology in a civil suit bolster support for improved communication following adverse events, which in turn may reduce the overall number of malpractice suits.

Providers looking to reduce malpractice suits have seen glimmers of hope from communication-and-resolution programs. Now, a ruling from the Ohio Supreme Court paves the way for some physicians to issue an apology without fear a patient will use it as leverage in a civil lawsuit.

Adverse outcomes are inevitable, but hospitals and physicians continue to seek ways to ensure they don't necessarily result in malpractice suits. Early evidence suggests honest communication and an apology following a medical error may reduce lawsuits. A recent JAMA Internal Medicine study found a communication-and-resolution program after medical injury also led to an improvement in patient satisfaction, and a Health Affairs study shows it boosts overall outcomes. 

RELATED: Disclosure of medical errors along with an apology may lead to fewer lawsuits

By appearing arrogant or unsympathetic to patients, doctors increase their risk of a malpractice lawsuit, as FiercePracticeManagement has previously reported. The Ohio Supreme Court’s recent ruling disallowing use of a physician’s apology as evidence in a civil lawsuit removes one of the main worries doctors have regarding the issuance of an apology, according to an article in Medical Economics.

RELATED: 3 costly mistakes to avoid in malpractice cases

The key to the Ohio ruling lies in its broad definition of the word “apology,” which Justice Sharon Kennedy delineated in her majority opinion as “a statement expressing a feeling of regret for an unanticipated outcome of patient’s medical care, and may include an acknowledgment that the patient’s care was substandard.”

While physicians in Ohio and other states with similar statutes ought to feel more comfortable communicating with patients and their families after an adverse event, they shouldn’t necessarily throw all caution to the wind, Stephanie A. Sheps, director of claims for Coverys, a Boston-based medical liability insurance agency, told the publication. She stressed that laws vary from state to state, so it’s incumbent on practices to understand the limits on how far they may be able to go when issuing an apology or an admission of liability.