For some people, saying "I'm sorry" is one of the hardest phrases to utter. This is especially difficult for doctors. Not only is it difficult for highly-skilled professionals to swallow their pride, but an apology after a negative medical outcome could become evidence in a medical malpractice lawsuit.
Ohio has a complicated relationship when it comes to doctors and apologies. There is a law on the books protecting doctors who apologize to their patients. Recently, however, a ruling by an Ohio Court of Appeals confirmed that apologies that also admit guilt can be used as evidence at trial.
The appellate court heard a wrongful death case in which the claimant had been awarded $3 million. In 2004, a woman died during back surgery because her surgeon accidentally nicked an artery and failed to stop the bleeding in time to save her life. After the surgery, the doctor apologized to the woman's husband and daughter and admitted his medical mistake.
This apology was used as evidence in the resulting wrongful death lawsuit and the jury awarded the man $3 million. The doctor appealed the decision, citing Ohio's apology statute that protects doctors who apologize to their patients. He said that the statute was intended to apply both to expressions of sympathy and acknowledgement of fault.
After careful deliberation, the Ohio Ninth District Court of Appeals disagreed. They said that the apology statute was only intended to protect expressions of sympathy such as "I'm sorry for your loss." If the apology was also an admission of fault, it could be used evidence in a resulting lawsuit.
Doctors in Ohio must now walk a very fine line. On one hand, studies show that patients are less likely to sue for medical malpractice if they receive an appropriate apology. On the other hand, admitting fault for a medical mistake can be like confessing to a crime.
Most people are reasonable and realize that doctors are human and make mistakes. Therefore, an apology is the appropriate human thing to do. However, a sincere apology also involves owning up to your mistakes. That includes being willing to compensate those whom you have harmed.
Source: Lexology, "Ohio's apology statute: sorry seems to be the hardest word," Stephen R. Kleinman, Aug. 8, 2011