Apology laws. We’ve all seen them in action on the various doctor shows out there, or maybe you’ve experienced them in person. They’re laws that allow “physicians to express sympathy to patients and families without it being used against them.” One of the reasons why they were implemented in the first place was to reduce the number of medical malpractice suits being filed. However, a new study conducted by a team from Vanderbilt University has revealed that apology laws do not reduce “the number of medical malpractice suits filed, or the amounts paid out.” In fact, the opposite has occurred. Enacted in 32 states across the country, the apology laws, or “I’m sorry” laws have actually “increased the number of suits against non-surgeons.”
But how exactly were apology laws supposed to decrease medical malpractice suits? For starters, they’re designed to prevent plaintiffs from “introducing as evidence an apology made by a physician if a mistake is alleged.” They “aimed at reducing lawsuits, based on the reasoning that a decision to file a suit is often made in anger.” Apology laws tried to dissipate anger with acts of compassion.
Instead of working how medical professionals thought it would, the apology laws seem to have backfired in ways, because the study found that in some cases, the laws “encourage a suit, as an apology might transport a signal.” According to Benjamin McMichael, a postdoctoral scholar at Vanderbilt and one of the authors of the recent study, “by apologizing, the doctor tells the patient he screwed up when the patient previously did not know that.” He added, “they can’t use the apology itself, but knowing something went wrong, they can look for other evidence that they can use.” While this doesn’t happen often, it’s more apt to happen in a non-surgical setting where a mistake is much harder to identify, as opposed to an actual surgical setting.
So how were these results found? How did the authors of the study go about collecting their data? For starters, the authors studied 3,517 malpractice claims from all over the country between the years 2004 and 2011. They quickly learned that there was “no way of knowing how many apologies were made,” so, in the end, they were forced to admit the laws were pretty much useless. An excerpt from the study states:
“The results are not consistent with the intended effect of apology laws, as these laws do not generally reduce either the total number of claims or the number of claims that result in a lawsuit. Apology laws have no statistically significant effect on the probability that surgeons experience either a non-suit claim or a lawsuit.”
Despite the failures of the program to lower malpractice claims, many believe the apology laws are still important because they allow “people to be decent human beings.” As Travis Akin, executive director of Illinois Lawsuit Abuse Watch, said in response to the study, “doctors are human beings, and doctors care deeply.” He added, “when it comes to doctors and things going badly wrong, there are serious consequences and doctors should be allowed to have that sort of relationship and express sorrow without admitting liability.”
At least with the apology laws in place, doctors are able to express human emotions and offer comfort to grieving families.