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PA Medical Apology Law Soon to Take Effect, JHU Study Shows Lack of Courtesy Among Young Doctors

Doctor with clipboard.jpgPennsylvania has joined the ranks of states having a "medical apology" law on the books. The "I'm Sorry" laws allow doctors and other healthcare providers to express regret without fear of the apology being used against them in a medical malpractice lawsuit. The Keystone state's law becomes effective on Dec. 22.

The law will shield doctors so that an apology following an unwanted or unexpected medical outcome could not be used as evidence of negligence in a lawsuit. It protects any action or statement that conveys a sense of apology or explanation "emanating from humane impulses." The statute does not protect factual statements or admissions of guilt for a medical outcome or error. It also applies to nursing home staff and administrators.

The new law is not expected to have an impact on an injured person's ability to file a medical malpractice lawsuit.

After languishing among Pennsylvania state legislators for several years, the bill received unanimous support from the state's House of Representatives and Senate. The House passed the bill on a 202-0 vote, while the Senate passed the bill on a 50-0 vote. According to news reports, both physicians and plaintiffs' attorneys supported the law. Proponents said agreement between the two sides led to this year's swift passage.

Patient advocates fear that apologies from healthcare providers can cause patients to accept settlement offers that will not adequately compensate them for their injuries; however, proponents say apologies lead to fewer medical malpractice lawsuits.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett signed the bill on Oct. 23.

So far, 37 states have such laws. Maryland has its own medical apology law. Maryland law states that an apology or statement of regret by a doctor is inadmissible in a medical malpractice trial. However, if there is an admission of guilt in conjunction with an apology it can be used in court. Last year, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick signed legislation that emphasized an approach of "disclosure, apology and offer" to medical malpractice claims.

In similar news, Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins University has released a study finding that "common courtesy " is lacking among new doctors and that it could impact medical outcomes. Johns Hopkins investigators found that medical interns are unlikely to introduce themselves fully to hospitalized patients or to sit down to talk to them eye-to-eye, despite research suggesting that courteous bedside manners improve medical recovery along with patient satisfaction.

Observers recorded whether the interns employed five strategies known as etiquette-based communication - introducing oneself, explaining one's role in the patient's care, touching the patient, asking open-ended questions such as "How are you feeling today?" and sitting down with the patient.

Interns touched their patients (which could be either a physical exam or a handshake) during 65 percent of visits and asked open-ended questions 75 percent of the time. They introduced themselves only 40 percent of the time, explained their role only 37 percent of the time and sat down during only nine percent of visits.

Interns performed all five of the behaviors during just four percent of all patient encounters and were only slightly more likely to introduce themselves to patients during their first encounter than a later one, the researchers say.

Previous studies have shown that internal medicine trainees don't follow such procedures because senior doctors - their mentors - fail to use them.

The researchers say hospitals and training program officials can take simple steps to improve patient-doctor communication by providing chairs and adding lessons on etiquette-based communication to curriculums.

Baltimore, Maryland-based Belsky, Weinberg & Horowitz has been fighting for the victims of medical malpractice and negligence for many years. Call us at 410-234-0100 or email us for a free consultation and let us help you.

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