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Doctors: 'I'm Sorry' Doesn't Mean 'I'm Liable'

Joe Cantlupe, for HealthLeaders Media, April 28, 2011

When my dad died of cancer in a hospital 15 years ago, my mother felt everyone seemed so cold, so sterile. There were expressions of sympathy, but it seemed perfunctory. In any event, she was not planning to race to an attorney's office to file some malpractice suit. Everyone did what he or she could for my dad. Blame was not in the family's lexicon following my dad's death. Sorrow was.

In Michigan, there is a broad coalition of support for the "I'm sorry" measure, including a group of medical malpractice lawyers. The legislation has an enabling quality for patients as well as physicians, Elmassian says. "Compassion expressed at the time of the event provides closure for families. That's the key point," Elmassian says. "Many times, they want answers for what happened."

Cecil B. Wilson, MD, president of the American Medical Association, said in an interview with HealthLeaders Media that the AMA sees the "I'm Sorry" legislation as "potentially viable." But, he says such measures must be incorporated with other aspects of tort reform to crack down on malpractice litigation, such as medical courts, expert certification procedures and "safe harbors for physicians who practice" under scientific guidelines.

 "We think all these things need to be tested to see if it helps us with the challenges we have in medical liability that we think has run amok," Wilson said. "Just the apology itself has to be part of a bigger system to be helpful. The reality is that the current system creates so much animosity." Generally, many lawyers discourage physicians from apologizing, and "certainly most insurers discourage them from apologizing for fear it would hurt them in court," Wilson said.

The overall liability reform is necessary, in part, to "decrease this atmosphere of animosity "and "defensive medicine," Wilson said. "Physicians fear being hauled into court."

Nancy Foster, vice-president for quality and patient safety policy for the American Hospital Association, says that the "I am Sorry" legislation is a step forward in dealing with malpractice issues.

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