Doctors group welcomes opportunity to express condolences
After years of legislative setbacks, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett has signed an "apology law." The unanimously approved measure in the state House and Senate allows health professionals to apologize for an error without it being used in court against them.
Under the law, health providers can now express a statement of condolences, a gesture of compassion or sense of apology to families when things don't go according to plan.
That's good news to one of the state's main physician groups.
"We have in the past seen situations with physicians being afraid to express a benevolent gesture for fear that it will be used against them in court," said Richard Schott, a cardiologist practicing in the Philadelphia region and president of the Pennsylvania Medical Society.
Schott said that fear and resulting withdrawal could lead to unnecessary malpractice suits, grounded in families' anger and frustration. Now, he said, doctors won't have to worry about saying "I'm sorry."
But the law doesn't technically exempt apologies from being used in court, according to Tom Baker, a professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania. Any statement or gesture that involves admitting guilt or negligence could still be used in court.
"'I'm sorry for your loss' — That's not an apology. That's an expression of sympathy, which might be appropriate," said Baker. "It looks like any statement about 'Gosh I operated on the wrong leg. I'm really sorry. It was my fault.' — those sorts of things would be admissible."
While previous bill proposals have faced pushback from trial attorneys, Nancy Winkler, president of the Philadelphia Trial Lawyers Association, doesn't take issue with the new law.
"In the event that a doctor is concerned that, if they apologize and just express remorse, even if it wasn't their fault, but that could be utilized against them, it allows them to do that," Winkler said. "And I think that's completely justified."
Winkler isn't sure whether the law will lead to fewer lawsuits. She says Pennsylvania already requires that before a malpractice case can be filed, a medical provider must review it and determine whether there are grounds for a case.