Gov. Tom Corbett on Wednesday signed a so-called “benevolent gesture”
bill designed to protect medical professionals who apologize to patients from having their words used against them in civil court.
The measure, Senate Bill 379, allows healthcare professionals to talk to their patients about procedures that went awry without fearing that those words would come back to haunt them during a potential medical malpractice action.
The proposal, a form of which has been adopted in 36 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Territory of Guam, allows medical professionals to make apologies or “benevolent gestures” to patients, but doesn’t outright prohibit litigation from commencing.
“After eight years of hard work I’m pleased to see this legislation become law,” State Sen. Pat Vance, the Republican lawmaker who championed the measure, said in a statement. “Stakeholders were able to put aside their competing interests to come to a compromise.
“An apology works and has been proven to be effective in resolving conflict and preventing litigation.”
Vance, a registered nurse who as a legislator represents constituents in Pennsylvania’s 31st Senatorial District, which includes York and Cumberland Counties in the south-central part of the state, first introduced her benevolent gesture bill in 2009.
The lawmaker noted that the University of Michigan began back in 2001 to encourage staff to apologize when medical errors have occurred, and since that time lawsuits have dropped about 50 percent.
“I’m hopeful Pennsylvania will see similar results,” Vance said in her statement.
In her legislative co-sponsorship memo circulated to fellow lawmakers back in December of last year, Vance pointed to studies that have shown that many patients and families may not have filed medical malpractice actions if they were offered an explanation and/or apology regarding a healthcare professional’s act of negligence.
“Apology has proven a dramatically effective way of resolving conflict and preventing litigation,” the senator said in a statement after the bill passed the state Senate in late June.
The state House of Representatives passed the measure by a 202-0 vote on Tuesday, the day before it received Gov. Corbett’s signature, according to legislative records.
The Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania, a supporter of the measure, said the new law is a “major victory for hospitals, health care providers, patients, and families seeking better communication.”
The association noted that Corbett had referenced the measure in his Healthy PA initiative, in which he urged continued reform of Pennsylvania’s medical liability system.
Specifically, the chief executive previously stated that a “healthy Pennsylvania” needs to build upon recent improvements to the legal system by adopting the benevolent gesture or “apology rule” for healthcare providers allowing them to express “empathy for unforeseen outcomes without fear that their statements will be seen as an admission of error.”
The Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry also hailed the passage of the benevolent gesture bill as a step in the right direction.
“Health-care providers are often reluctant to speak or advised against speaking compassionately and honestly with patients following a medical error out of fear those statements will be used against them in court,” Chamber Government Affairs Vice President Sam Denisco said in a statement. “To patients, however, this lack of sympathy is the trademark of an uncaring medical professional. The resulting frustration and hurt leads to lawsuits that might otherwise not be filed.”
Research shows that anger, not greed, is often the driving force behind most medical malpractice lawsuits, according to the Pennsylvania Health Care Association.
Denisco said that lower overall healthcare costs could result as a reduction in medical malpractice lawsuits.
“Senate Bill 379 does not relieve health-care providers of liability nor does it take away a patient’s right to sue,” Denisco stated. “The bill merely allows medical professionals to be human; to express the concern and sympathy one would expect when a medical mistake has occurred.”