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Medical malpractice study: Apology is not enough

When a friend or family member has said or done something that hurts you, a heartfelt apology can be a wonderful way of making amends. Of course, an apology is not always going to make everything better in personal relationships.

Apologies don't repair the damage done when a negligent doctor or hospital harms a patient with a surgical error, misdiagnosis or other instance of medical malpractice. A new study shows that so-called apology laws do not reduce the risk of medical malpractice liability for doctors.

State apology laws -- we have one here in West Virginia -- enable doctors to apologize to patients without fear that the apologies can be used in lawsuits. The new study (“Sorry Is Never Enough: The Effect of State Apology Laws on Medical Malpractice Liability Risk") from Vanderbilt University says apologies alone don't do the trick.

The laws are “intuitively appealing but empirically unfounded,” a co-author states.

Researchers said their study of more than 3,500 claims filed from 2004 to 2011 showed that there is no statistical difference in the numbers of malpractice claims in places with apology laws.

Really, if you think about it, the conclusion makes some sense. Will a person who has suffered an injury and had to undergo painful surgeries and therapy be satisfied with "I'm sorry" when they are facing enormous medical bills past, present and future? Doctors and insurers who were hoping for that outcome were perhaps unrealistic.

An apology is a good place to start for a doctor who is sorry for the damage they did because of their negligence. But it is not necessarily the last word for the physician or for the victim of that negligence.

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