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

Joe Cantlupe, April 28, 2011

In the 1970 movie "Love Story" a now-classic line was born: "Love means never having to say you're sorry."

Well, celluloid love isn't medicine, and "I'm sorry" has become the new iconic line in legislation being adopted in states across the nation to give providers greater protection for medical errors against lawsuits.

The latest one was last week when Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan signed an "I'm sorry" bill.  At least 36 states have adopted laws that generally bar physicians' expressions of compassion or sympathy about pain, suffering, or the death of a patient to a patient or family as an admission of liability in medical malpractice suits.

Top officials of the American Medical Association and the American Hospital Association told me that they support the legislation but note that it must be worked within an overall framework of tort reform.

Are we so litigious that we have to legislate feelings of compassion, or just being honest? I guess we are. I'm sorry it has come to this. Saying "I'm sorry" has its practical impact, apparently. The University of Michigan Health System adopted a policy of investigating adverse events in 2002, and included the apology strategy. The health system says it cut litigation costs in half and new claims declined by than 40%. 

So, in part, saying "I'm sorry" works. "It's amazing you actually have to pass a law to say you are sorry," saysKenneth Elmassian, DO, an anesthesiologist and member of the board of directors of the Michigan State Medical Society. He also is on the board of the American Society of Anesthesiologists.

Joe Cantlupe Joe Cantlupe is a senior editor with HealthLeaders Media Online.Twitter
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