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High court rules doctors' apologies can't be used against them

When doctors make an error than causes injury to a patient or exacerbates a medical condition, they often feel badly about it. They want to work with the patient and family to remedy the situation as much as possible.

However, too often, doctors are afraid that if they apologize, that apology can be used against them in a malpractice suit as an admission of liability. That can prevent them from showing their true concern for the patient and worsen an already-soured relationship.

A recent ruling by the Ohio Supreme Court, however, should make doctors less fearful of providing an apology and even an admission of responsibility. The justices ruled 5 to 2 that an admission of liability can't be used as evidence in a lawsuit against a medical provider.

An official with a medical liability insurance company applauded the ruling, saying that it "should give healthcare providers comfort and reassurance that doing the right thing -- helping patients and families understand the adverse event, supporting them through its aftermath and even expressing sympathy -- can be done without fear of it being used against them as evidence of negligence."

In the majority opinion, the court said that even if doctors acknowledge to patients and family members that they provided substandard care, that admission can't be used against them in court.

Doctors and health care experts say that often a simple apology and acknowledgement of fault by a doctor can actually prevent a malpractice suit. One doctor calls it a "single step toward restoring the human connection of clinician and patient -- to the benefit of both."

In some states with "apology statutes" similar to Ohio's, however, such an admission included with an apology can be used as evidence against the physician. One attorney notes that regardless of how a particular state's statute reads or is interpreted, doctors should still "focus on a discussion of the unanticipated outcome rather than admissions about the care provided."

When doctors apologize and take responsibility for their errors, patients and their families often feel better. However, an apology can't make up for an error or omission that caused serious harm or death. That's why it's essential to discuss any potential malpractice case you believe you may have with a provider and/or facility with an experienced Ohio medical malpractice attorney.

Source: Medical Economics, "Judge says apologies can't be used in malpractice suits," Keith Loria, Oct. 09, 2017

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