Medicolegal Issues

The apology in medicine—yes, no, or maybe?

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Apology statutes

Massachusetts was the first state to enact an apology law—in 1986.1 As of 2019, a clear majority of states have some form of apology statute. “Apology laws are gaining traction,” was the first sentence in a 2012 review on the subject by Saitta and colleagues.3 Only a few (5 states) have “strong” statutes that have broad protection for statements of fault, error, and negligence, as well as sympathy. The other 33 states have statutes that only protect against statements of sympathy.4,16 FIGURE 1 is a US map showing the apology laws by state.1

Do apology statutes and apologies reduce liability?

The positive aspects of apology include personal, psychological, and emotional benefits to both the one apologizing and the one receiving the apology. It also may have financial benefits to health care providers.4 The assumption has been, and there has been some evidence for the proposition, that apologies reduce the possibility of malpractice claims. That is one of the reasons that institutions may have formal apology policies. Indeed, there is evidence that apologies reduce financial awards to patients, as manifest in the states of Pennsylvania and Kentucky.4 Apologies appear to reduce patient anger and can open the door to better communication with the provider. There is evidence that some kinds of apologies tend to diminish blame and make the injured patient less likely to pursue litigation.10 The conclusion from these studies might be that honest and open communication serves to decrease the incidence of medical malpractice lawsuit initiation and that honesty is the best policy.

It is important to note the difference, however, between apologies (or institutional apology policies) and apology laws. There is some evidence that apology and institutional apology policies may reduce malpractice claims or losses.17,18 On the other hand, the studies of apology laws have not found that these laws have much impact on malpractice rates. An especially good and thorough study of the effect of apology laws nationwide, using insurance claims data, essentially found little net effect of the apology laws.19,20 One other study could find no evidence that apology statutes reduce defensive medicine (so no reduction in provider concerns over liability).21

It should be noted that most studies on medical apology and its effects on malpractice claims generally have looked at the narrow or limited apology statutes (that do not cover expressions of fault or negligence). Few states have the broader statutes, and it is possible that those broader statutes would be more effective in reducing liability. Removing the disincentives to medical apologies is a good thing, but in and of itself it is probably not a liability game changer.

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