doctors may not be liable for apologies in medical malpractice cases

When a person knows that he or she has done something wrong, it is appropriate for that person to apologize and take responsibility for his or her actions. In Pennsylvania, lawmakers introduced legislation that would limit the liability associated with apologies from health care professionals.

The “benevolent gesture” law has passed in 35 states, but Pennsylvania will likely not be the 36th state to implement the proposed legislation. If it passed, the “benevolent gesture” law would prevent apologies or compassionate statements from health care professionals from being used against those individuals in medical malpractice lawsuits.

The way the legislation is currently drafted, a benevolent gesture is described as “any and all action, conduct, statement or gesture that conveys a sense of apology, condolence, explanation, compassion or commiseration emanating from humane impulses.”

When the bill was introduced in Pennsylvania in February, the committee chairman, Senator Steward Greenleaf, said he would not move ahead without a compromise regarding what details of an apology could be disclosed.

Those who support the legislation claim it strengthens doctor-patient relationships by increasing trust. They claim that medical malpractice lawsuits are motivated by anger, and that when patients are provided with a full explanation of why their procedures failed, their anger would be defused.

In reality, there is typically much more behind medical malpractice lawsuits than just anger. When an individual suffers permanent injuries because of a doctor’s mistake, he or she may be forced to seek lifelong medical treatment. Medical malpractice lawsuits help victims pay for that expensive treatment, and lawsuits can provide compensation for the pain and suffering the individuals endured.

The vice president for governmental affairs with the Pennsylvania Medical Society said the problem is straightforward. “When there’s an unanticipated outcome or error, patients have questions and doctors want to give answers.” If the “benevolent gesture” law passed, patients would be unfairly prohibited from using the doctors’ answers or admission of fault in lawsuits against the doctors.

Source: MedCity News, “‘Benevolent gesture’ law looks unlikely for Pennsylvania,” Stephanie Baum, Oct. 12, 2011

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