James Woods, University of Michigan Agree: Apology in Medicine Saves Medical Malpractice Expenses

James Woods recently testified before the Rhode Island General Assembly in favor of apology-in-medicine legislation. That’s right, the acclaimed American film, stage and television actor extraordinaire is a proponent of apology in medicine.

Apology in medicine in not a new concept, but in the context of medical adverse events and unanticipated outcomes, an apology has the potential to considered an admission against interest, which can translate into an admission of fault that is admissible in a court of law. Most medical malpractice insurance companies advise their insureds not to apologize; many medical malpractice insurance companies require their insureds not apologize.

There are many proponents of apology in medicine and laws that shield those apologies from being admissible in court. James Woods is the newest and most-high-profile proponent of apology laws.

In 2006, Woods’ brother, Michael, died of a heart attack at Kent Hospital in Warwick, R.I. Woods sued the hospital accusing emergency room staff of negligence, but settled the lawsuit in 2009 after a hospital executive made a sincere apology and agreed to start an institute in his brother’s name.

Woods recently used his acclaim as Rhode Island’s greatest living actor to testify in favor of “benevolent gestures” legislation currently being considered by the General Assembly. The bill, 2012-H 7290, would let healthcare providers apologize to patients or families for the negative outcome of treatment without leaving the providers vulnerable to malpractice lawsuits.

Apology in medicine is not an untested concept. The University of Michigan implemented a policy of apologizing for medical errors in 2001, and the effort has effectively decreased the hospital system’s liability costs and didn’t lead to additional malpractice lawsuits.

According to the University of Michigan, new claims for compensation, liability costs and the amount of time it took to resolve claims after the policy was implemented all went down. In fact, the median time to resolve a claim dropped from about 16 months to just less than a year; the monthly rate of new claims fell from about 7 per 100,000 patient encounters to 4.5 per 100,00; the number of lawsuits the health system experienced fell from about 38.7 per year to about 17 after the new program began; the annual spending at the university’s health system on legal defense decreased by 61 percent; and the average cost per lawsuit decreased from $405,921 to $228,308 after the policy started.

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