“After eight years of hard work, I'm pleased to see this legislation become law,” Vance, a Republican from Cumberland County, said in a news release. “Stakeholders were able to put aside their competing interests to come to a compromise. An apology works and has proven to be effective in resolving conflict and preventing litigation. The University of Michigan in 2001 began to encourage staff to apologize when mistakes occurred. Lawsuits have fallen about 50% since. I'm hopeful Pennsylvania will see similar results.”
The University of Michigan model involves much more than an apology. It involves communicating openly with the patient in the aftermath of the medical incident, reviewing the incident, including through medical peer review, and instituting any necessary changes, and compensating the patient for any financial losses if there were errors.
The Pennsylvania Medical Society, or PAMED, reported that its members sent 1,300 messages to legislators over the past two years supporting the measure. It noted that the law protects apologies but not admissions of negligence. It also doesn't prohibit patients from filing a suit and does not cap what they can recover.
“As physicians, it is part of our job—part of our moral and ethical responsibility—to respond to patients and families when there are less-than-favorable outcomes,” Dr. C. Richard Schott, PAMED president, said in a news release. “Medicine is not an exact science, and outcomes may be unpredictable. Benevolent gestures are always appropriate and physicians should not have to fear giving them.”
The state Senate approved the bill by a 50-0 vote June 25. The state House of Representatives passed it 202-0 yesterday.
“Today we are taking another step forward in our mission to increase healthcare quality and affordability for all Pennsylvanians,” Corbett said in a news release. “I thank Sen. Vance and Rep. (Keith) Gillespie for their advocacy for a compassionate cause as well as for their collaboration on reducing the financial burdens that can drain individuals, families and our healthcare system.”
Corbett described the law as “an excellent example of how we can come together as Pennsylvanians to do the right thing,” and linked it to his Healthy Pennsylvania program, which outlines his plan to increase access to affordable healthcare.
The bill was also supported by the Pennsylvania Chamber of Commerce and Industry. In a news release, it noted how research has shown “that anger—not greed—is the driving force” behind most malpractice suits as patients feel frustrated and hurt when their doctor doesn't respond to their questions after a medical error.
“Senate Bill 379 does not relieve healthcare providers of liability, nor does it take away a patient's right to sue,” Sam Denisco, Chamber vice president for government affairs, said in the release. “The bill merely allows medical professionals to be human; to express the concern and sympathy one would expect when a medical mistake has occurred.”
Scott Cooper, a partner with Harrisburg-based law firm SchmidtKramer and the immediate past president of the Pennsylvania Association for Justice trial lawyers group, said an important compromise moved the legislation forward.
This involved removing any “Draconian measures that take away people's rights” such as not allowing statements of facts to be used in court, Cooper said. By “getting rid of the devil” that remained in the details, he said the legislature was able to get to the true intent of the measure—which was to not have apologies by doctors or hospitals used against them. As an example, Cooper explained that, under previous unsuccessful iterations of the bill, an administrator could have told someone “I'm sorry that your grandfather died in our nursing home, but we were understaffed due to our incompetence” and the entire statement would have be inadmissible in court. Now the apology is protected.
Cooper said he doubted that the law would have much impact on malpractice filings and premiums, but it could provide a psychological lift for doctors and patients—especially injured patients who previously were getting stonewalled by their provider.
Follow Andis Robeznieks on Twitter: @MHARobeznieks