Apparently, there’s a fine line between compassion and self-incrimination. Kansas legislators are trying to help the state’s physicians negotiate that line with a measure that is being referred to as the “I’m sorry” bill. The goal of the legislation is to allow a physician to show simple compassion by expressing sorrow to a patient or family without that expression being used in court as some admission of wrongdoing.
Similar measures have been passed in about 35 other states, and there is come indication the laws are having the desirable effect of reducing the number of malpractice claims and lawsuits in those states. Having a doctor show concern or compassion — simply say “I’m sorry” — apparently makes some patients and families less inclined to seek retribution.
Of course, there’s a difference between a doctor saying “I’m sorry this treatment wasn’t as successful as we had hoped,” and one saying “Because we failed to follow proper procedure, we operated on the wrong foot. Gee, I’m sorry.” One simply conveys sympathy and concern while the other clearly conveys an admission. The Kansas bill is seeking to draw a line between the two, protecting doctors’ right to show compassion while allowing incriminating statements to be used in court.
Kansas doctors surely will appreciate any assistance lawmakers can offer in this area. Most of them wouldn’t be in the profession they’re in if they didn’t have a sense of compassion that they naturally want to share with patients and their families. Yet, the fear that even a simple “I’m sorry” legally can be construed to assign blame forces them into a stilted, unemotional style of communication.
From a practical standpoint, reducing the number of malpractice claims and lawsuits is a benefit for the society as a whole. Such claims, even if they are unfounded, drive up health care costs and may drive a certain number of doctors to drop all or part of their practice as a defensive move.
Saying “I’m sorry” shouldn’t protect a physician whose negligence has harmed a patient, but neither should an honest show of sorrow or compassion be automatically construed as an admission of guilt.
It’s a sad commentary that doctors must be legally protected in order to show the kind of honest compassion that should be a natural part of practicing medicine. Nonetheless, a bill that would help facilitate that kind of communication is a step in the right direction.