Share This Page

New Pa. law allows doctors to be human

| 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 lfabregas@tribweb.com.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.