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New Pa. law allows doctors to be human

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Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Just over a year ago, a grieving widow from the Mon Valley called me to talk about her husband, who died after cancer surgery.

The woman tried in vain to reach out to her husband's surgeon, but he didn't return her calls.

All she wanted was a word of sympathy, perhaps a simple, “I'm sorry your husband died.”

It never happened.

Fast forward to the present, where a recently passed “Apology Law” gives Pennsylvania doctors the freedom to apologize without fear that their words could be used against them in medical malpractice suits.

The law, officially called the Benevolent Gesture Act, was unanimously approved by the Senate and House and signed by Gov. Corbett. When it goes into effect on Dec. 22, Pennsylvania will join at least 36 other states and the District of Columbia with similar measures.

“This allows you to be more of a human being,” Dr. Amelia Pare, president of the Allegheny County Medical Society, told me. “It really keeps that doctor-patient relationship open.”

As it should be. Any type of successful health care encounter should be based on trust and open communication. Doctors and other workers should not second-guess themselves because they worry an apology could come back to haunt them. They're human, after all, and mistakes happen.

The law doesn't cover statements beyond an apology or expression of care or concern. So you likely won't be hearing statements that admit negligence such as, “I wasn't thinking when I left the sponge in your husband's abdomen,” or “I can't believe I removed the left foot instead of the right one.”

But that's fine. Sometimes a simple gesture of sympathy or understanding is all it takes to make someone feel at ease and prevent the inevitable wall that hospitals put up when patients or their loved ones complain. A kind word can prevent litigation in our lawsuit-happy society. At the University of Michigan Health System in Ann Arbor, for instance, lawsuits declined by 50 percent since it established a system that encourages staff to apologize when mistakes occur.

To be fair, medical malpractice suits have dropped in Pennsylvania to about 1,500 a year, down from an average 10 years ago of 2,700. But there are still plenty of lawsuits filed with little or no merit. That's why this law is important — to push those numbers further down.

Of course, the law won't be a cure-all. Some patients, after all, have unrealistic expectations about hospitals and doctors. They sometimes fail to realize that, for good or bad, there are no guarantees in health care. It's up to health care workers to help alleviate the feelings of distrust and disappointment that often surface when someone we love doesn't do well.

The woman who called me told me she'd hired a lawyer, even though the surgeon had warned her and her husband of potential complications. She never filed a lawsuit, probably because medical malpractice cases are very hard to prove. Months after her husband's 2011 death, she managed to set up a meeting with the surgeon. A day before the meeting, his secretary called to cancel.

“If only I could've talked to him,” she said. “That would have made all the difference in the world.”

Luis Fábregas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7998 or

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