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Pennsylvania Doctors Allowed to Say “I’m Sorry”

ImSorryBy Brad Broker

“I’m sorry.”

Those are very powerful words, particularly when used by a doctor.  They can provide the slightest bit of comfort to a patient — or the family of a patient — and also allow the health care provider to express sincere compassion in a time when treatment did not meet expectations or worse, a loss occurred.

Doctors in Pennsylvania may finally be allowed to utter that phrase out loud.  Not exactly groundbreaking legislation as 36 other states already have similar laws in place.  However, for a state with an historically aggressive malpractice climate, the news is a giant leap forward.

Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives today passed the Benevolent Gesture Medical Professional Liability Act (SB 379) by a unanimous vote of 202-0.  Earlier in the year, the state’s Senate passed the measure 50-0.  This bill allows doctors to make benevolent gestures and not have those statements used against them as long as such statements are not an admission of negligence or fault.

“As physicians, it is part of our job – part of our moral and ethical responsibility – to respond to patients and families when there are less than favorable outcomes,” said C. Richard Schott, MD, president of the Pennsylvania Medical Society and a practicing cardiologist.  “Medicine is not an exact science, and outcomes may be unpredictable. Benevolent gestures are always appropriate and physicians should not have to fear giving them.”

However, physicians should be aware that there are still restrictions as to what they should say and what can still be used against them in a malpractice suit.  Mary Kate McGrath, an attorney with Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin in Pennsylvania, recently wrote:

Attempts to explain what happened during the course of treatment will remain admissible, even if the statements are made in the context of an apology. Words can be misinterpreted, therefore, it would be beneficial for health care providers to have communications be brief and witnessed by a third party. In order to enjoy the protections of the Apology Act at trial, it is essential for health care providers to know the difference between “I’m sorry” and “I was wrong.”

While some of the details will become clearer in time, docs can take a breath and know that, at minimum, they are allowed to say “I’m sorry” without worrying if it may later haunt them.

“This bill will help improve patient-doctor communications, while also helping trial lawyers who often have people call them thinking they have malpractice cases when the physicians didn’t say they were sorry,” said Dr. Schott.

The bill now moves to the governor’s desk for his signature.

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