Archive June 2019 XX, No. 6

Patient Affairs: When Sorry Doesn't Cut It

Apologizing won't make your malpractice problems disappear.

Benjamin McMichael

Benjamin McMichael, JD, PhD


Jason Meehan
CAREFUL SPEECH Most medical apology laws allow you to say, "I'm sorry," but they won't protect statements that admit fault.

It's human nature to want to apologize. When we cut someone off in traffic, when we forget to follow up on an email, when we say something that we shouldn't have, we all want to apologize and make amends. But in the world of medicine — and medical malpractice — "I'm sorry" has always been a bit more complicated. In the medical community, those words have always represented a difficult paradox: You want to express remorse to your patients, but you also don't want to say something that will come back to bite you in the court of law.

If you're a doctor who's made a mistake, what should you do? In response to this question, nearly 40 states have implemented so-called apology laws to give practitioners the ability to express condolences to patients without legal repercussions. When states pass these apology laws, they often list the opportunity to reduce lawsuits and encourage settlements as top priorities.

My colleagues and I have studied apology laws (, and we've found no evidence that they are reducing lawsuits and encouraging settlements. In some cases, they actually have the unintended consequence of increasing your liability. If you've made a mistake, it's understandable you might not know what to say. As you ponder your options, here are 3 things you should consider about medical apologies.

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