Despite the old “Love Story” movie, the saying “Love means never having to say you’re sorry” doesn’t work very well in relationships, and it doesn’t work well in medicine either.
When doctors are afraid to say, “I’m sorry”
When things go wrong or don’t turn out as hoped with a patient’s medical treatment, many physicians have felt they had to refrain from expressions of sympathy, empathy, or caring, out of fear of that their words might later be used against them in a malpractice suit. Not only does that rob patients of a level of caring on a personal level that has always been considered an important part of the doctor-patient relationship, it may in some cases constitute a breach of medical ethics.
According to the attorneys at obrlaw.com, “medical ethics codes generally require a provider to disclose all facts which are necessary for a patient’s full understanding of what has occurred with regard to their condition and treatment.” But fear of such disclosures being used in litigation may prevent doctors from doing so. “There’s a tendency for physicians to hold back,” admits Richard Schott, president of the Pennsylvania Medical Society.
That’s where the proposed “Benevolent Gesture” bill comes in. According to State Senator Don White, Chairman of the Pennsylvania Senate Banking and Insurance Committee, the proposed legislation will allow medical professionals to say “I’m sorry” without fear of that statement being used against them in court. “This will let health care professionals express their feelings without repercussions and it will let families know that those medical workers are humans with feelings,” says Senator White.
The sponsor of the legislation, State Senator Pat Vance, who is a nurse, defines a benevolent gesture as “any action that conveys a sense of apology, explanation or compassion emanating from humane impulses related to the discomfort, pain, suffering, injury or death of a patient.” Under her bill, any such benevolent gesture made prior to the commencement of a medical liability court action would be inadmissible as evidence.
To me, this bill seems to be a common sense, win-win proposition for both medical professionals and their patients. The constraints imposed by a physician’s fear that every word spoken to a patient might turn into a “gotcha” statement in a future trial can’t be good for the relationship between doctor and patient. At the same time, the legislation in no way let’s providers off the hook for actual malpractice.
The “Benevolent Gesture” legislation, Senate Bill 379, now awaits a vote on the House floor. If passed, Pennsylvania would become the 37th state, along with the District of Columbia and Guam, to enact such a provision. It ought to be passed.
When the “Benevolent Gesture” bill does become law in Pennsylvania, good medical practice will once again mean being able to say you’re sorry.