The Power of “Sorry”

Like many people, we like to sing while secure in the anonymity of our cars. This morning, one of us was wailing along with Elton John as he sang “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word”:

It’s sad, so sad

Why can’t we talk it over

Oh, it seems to me

That sorry seems to be the hardest word.

That verse frames a critical legal question physicians regularly encounter: how to communicate with patients after an unexpected outcome. More precisely, should a physician apologize to a patient who suffers complications because of that physician’s treatment?

Traditionally, after a patient suffered a complication, defense lawyers were reluctant to allow the physician to express apologies or regret. The defense lawyer feared the apology would be treated as an “admission against interest.” In other words, the defense lawyer wanted to prevent a plaintiff’s lawyer from someday arguing that the physician’s apology was an admission of negligence or wrongdoing.

But the lawyer’s strategy fails. The patient wants the physician to apologize for an error. In fact, the patient distrusts a physician who does not admit errors.

‘‘Although a physician may wish to tell a patient when he has made a mistake, lawyers often order doctors to say nothing,’’ wrote University of Florida law professor Jonathan R. Cohen in the Southern California Law Review.1 “The physician’s silence may then trigger the patient’s anger. This alienation may then prompt the patient to sue.”

Apology Statutes

States with apology laws: Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, and Wyoming.

These observations are consistent with studies demonstrating that patients are far less to sue when provided with a full explanation and apology.2

Certainly no physician wants to make a statement that a plaintiff’s lawyer will use against him in court. But the same physician rationally wants to take any steps that might prevent the patient from feeling as though he or she needs to consult with a plaintiff’s lawyer. So, what’s a physician to do when caught between the hospital’s lawsuit-fearing attorney and a patient who expects his doctor to communicate with her honestly and forthrightly?

Fortunately, several state legislatures have recognized this tension and passed legislation that encourages physicians to apologize without facing the prospect that a plaintiff’s lawyer will argue that the physician apologized only because he knew he did something wrong. An example best illustrates how such “I’m sorry” statutes work.

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