Malpractice: Should You Say 'I'm Sorry'?

Batya Swift Yasgur, MA, LMSW

Disclosures

September 04, 2013

In This Article

Introduction

Every physician slips up sometimes, and until recently the common wisdom was to avoid talking to patients about these mistakes. The tide has turned, and today's physicians are encouraged to apologize for errors to express sympathy -- and also hopefully as a way of averting lawsuits. Many states have passed laws that prohibit apologies from being admissible in malpractice court, and an increasing number of medical schools and professional societies are promoting this approach.

But do doctors think it's helpful?

No, say the vast majority of physicians who responded to Medscape's Medical Malpractice Report, a survey of 1400 physicians who had been sued. Several respondents called apologies "useless," and some felt apologizing actually made things worse. "I said I'm sorry, and the family used it against me," one respondent reported.

"I'm not surprised that doctors have been burned by apologizing," comments Victor Cotton, MD, JD, President of Law and Medicine, a company that provides accredited CME/CE regarding medicolegal issues. "It's like letting the cat out of the bag. You can never put the cat back into the bag again."

But it's not all that simple. "You can't make categorical statements about apologies any more than you can oversimplify other areas of medicine," says Richard Roberts, MD, JD, Professor of Family Medicine, University of Wisconsin, and an expert in decision tools for risk management.

"It's a mistake to say that an apology is a bulletproof vest against the guns of malpractice suits. But it's also a mistake to say that it doesn't work or makes things worse. Everything depends on the timing, the situation, the state you live in, and how you go about apologizing."

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