Doctors ask Nevada lawmakers to pass 'I'm sorry' law

Associated Press

Doctors asked Nevada lawmakers Friday to pass a law that would let them say they’re sorry for medical mistakes — something they’re usually told not to do because of fears an apology could be used against them later in court.

Several doctors and the head of the Nevada State Medical Association asked the Senate Judiciary Committee to pass SB174, an “I’m sorry” measure to prevent any expression of compassion, regret, or fault for what happened to a patient from being used as evidence in any civil court proceedings.

Sponsored by Sen. Joseph Heck, R-Henderson, who is also an osteopathic physician, the bill is similar to laws already passed in 29 other states.

Doctors often are told by medical educators and attorneys not to apologize to patients for medical errors out of fear that the apology will be seen as an admission of negligence, Heck said.

“This advice, which has been heeded by many physicians, results in a chilling and straining of the patient-physician relationship at the very time when the patient is most in need,” said Heck.

Apologies can actually reduce the chances of a lawsuit being filed, some doctors testified. What most patients and their families really want is to understand what happened when mistakes are made, said Dr. David Fiore, a Reno family physician.

“What we really need this for isn’t so much the malpractice,” said Fiore. “We need it for the healing.”

Larry Matheis, executive director of the Nevada State Medical Association, said passing the bill is vital now that medical schools are increasingly stressing communication skills.

“This absence of communication has to be bridged,” said Matheis. “Most of it is going to have to be bridged by people being free to talk to each other, and talk to each other frankly.”

Bill Bradley, a Reno medical malpractice attorney, testified against the bill. If an apology is retracted when litigation begins, it could be even more devastating to a patient than not receiving an apology, he said.

“Any sincere attempt to reconnect with the victims should start with a thorough explanation of the event,” said Bradley. “If litigation follows, the thorough and accurate explanation those patients got should be able to stand in court, because the truth is the truth.”

Heck agreed that withdrawing an apology in court would do harm, but said that’s exactly why his bill should be passed. If the doctor’s earlier apology is inadmissible, there’s no need to deny the apology took place, he said.
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