The Issue of Saying Sorry by Doctors and Others Is Not Always an Admission of Wrongdoing

A Tuesday, July 15, 2014 a story in the Science section of the New York Times covered the circumstances in which doctors are faced with a dilemma in practice. They are reluctant to say to a patient or his or her family that they were sorry for a poor outcome in medical care. It has long been discussed whether doctors should approach patients and family members of patients to express regret or say the word “sorry” because of a bad outcome.

Many risk managers would stand in the way of doctors saying they were sorry for fear that those words might translate into an admission of wrongdoing, guilt and/or negligence.

The New York Times story, written by a physician, Abigail Zuger M.D., relates the medical issue to that of a plumber who worked in her home; a chain of events led to gushing water. Although the plumber wasn’t directly at fault for the problem, he happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time when he turned a bolt, screw or valve that was old and ready to break at anytime. The issue there was whether the plumber could have said “I’m sorry” without taking responsibility. The writer of this story wrote that saying, “I’m sorry” is not an expression of anything other than empathy and not an admission of fault.

I cite an example in my law practice for not so much stating I’m sorry for the outcome, but for communicating with patients. In this case, during our first meeting the family announced that they had no intention of reaching out to a lawyer to investigate whether their mother’s untimely death at a hospital was caused by a neurologist and emergency department physician’s negligence, but rather were interested in knowing why their mother had passed away. They said to me that had the doctors approached the family and explained what had happened, they would have never looked for an attorney to handle a possible case.

Dr. Zuger says she is always willing to say she is sorry for whatever happened. She uses the metaphor with the plumber and the gushing water to relate that a thank you note would be appropriate — one addressed to the plumber just to show her concern. It remains a sticky issue as to whether apologies of any kind are appropriate in a medical setting. In my law practice I have no case or experience where anything in the record regarding an apology by a doctor was used against him or her in any litigation. I have seen notes from doctors to families expressing regret, as to the outcome, without in any way admitting wrongdoing.

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling medical negligence cases for individuals and families who have been harmed, injured or died as a result of the carelessness or negligence of a medical provider for more than 38 years in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including Hinsdale, Robbins, Riverdale, Calumet City, Bedford Park, Hickory Hills, Berkeley, Bellwood, Westchester, Oakbrook, Mount Prospect, Northbrook, Melrose Park, Geneva, Lisle, Fox River Grove, Chicago (Garfield Park, Englewood, Edison Park, Edgebrook, Oz Park, Chinatown, West Loop), Round Lake Beach and Oak Park, Ill.

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