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Snyder signs bill allowing doctors to say "I'm sorry" to patients, families

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

LANSING, Mich. - It's a standard scene of the prime-time medical drama: after something goes wrong in the operating room, a doctor comes out to explain what happened and say "I'm sorry". 

In real life, doctors and other health care providers are often prohibited from saying "I'm sorry" because that can count as an admission of liability in court.  As a result, patients and their family members often lack closure, leading to medical malpractice lawsuits based on feelings of anger and suspicion rather than evidence of actual fault.

Today, Gov. Rick Snyder signed legislation sponsored by state Sen. Jim Marleau that allows health care providers to offer patients and their family members expressions of sympathy without fear it will be held against them in court.  Statements related to fault or negligence on the part of the health care provider are not exempt under this bill.

"Sometimes a doctor can do everything right and still lose a patient, or not be able to save a limb or prevent a stroke.  But hearing the simple words, ‘I'm sorry' can still mean a great deal to patients and their families," Snyder said.  "This legislation will help improve the quality of patient care.  We've also got good evidence this common-sense change will help reduce the number of medical malpractice lawsuits, which will help keep health care costs down."

Studies by the University of Michigan show that when health care providers are allowed to say "I'm sorry," patients and their families are able to let go of their anger and move on sooner.  In fact, the University of Michigan Health System estimates the average cost of lawsuits has been cut in half since it adopted an "I'm Sorry" policy nearly a decade ago.  At the same time, patient satisfaction has increased.

The bill, which passed with strong bipartisan support, only applies to new civil actions and is not retroactive to cover ongoing lawsuits.  Thirty-five other states have already approved similar legislation.

Senate Bill 53 is now Public Act 21 of 2011.