Legislation would allow doctors to apologize

Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, March 1, 2012

Actor James Woods spoke in favor of a proposed bill that would allow doctors to apologize to their patients without legal repercussions at a House Committee on Judiciary hearing last night. The “benevolent gestures” bill was introduced by Rep. Joseph McNamara, D-Warwick and Cranston. Similar legislation has been proposed seven times without passing.

Woods — a Warwick native who voiced the character Hades in the Disney film “Hercules” — lost his brother due to a malpractice incident at Kent Hospital in Warwick in 2006. He said the subsequent apology he received from Sandra Coletta, who is now the hospital’s president, made him recognize the power of a sincere apology. He had been prepared to wage “thermonuclear war” against the hospital, Woods said, but once he heard how genuinely sorry Coletta was on behalf of the hospital, they were able to move forward and collaboratively reach a settlement.

But by apologizing, Coletta put herself in a vulnerable position. Currently, when doctors express sympathy for a procedure gone awry or a corrective course of action, their words are admissible in court as evidence against them if a patient were to sue for malpractice. The “benevolent gestures” bill would change that, McNamara said.

Thirty-six other states have already enacted some version of “I’m sorry” legislation, and the numbers of medical malpractice suits in those states have decreased, Woods said. Hearing a genuine apology from a medical worker after an unexpected and undesired outcome “adds therapeutic closure,” Woods said. It also “allows patients and doctors to work together and achieve the best possible medical outcomes.”

After McNamara, Woods and Coletta introduced the bill, many medical workers testified in favor of it.

Michael Migliori ’79 MD’82 P’11 P’12 P’14, chief of ophthalmology and reconstructive surgery at Rhode Island Hospital, clarified that the bill does not protect doctors from “bad behavior.” The drop in malpractice suits many states saw after enacting similar legislation was because patients felt like they no longer needed to sue, not because they felt like they no longer could, he said.

Faith Birnbaum ’10 MD’15 attended the hearing to support her classmate, Peter Kaminski MD’15, who also provided testimony in favor of the bill. “It makes the whole idea of health care so much harder if you can’t admit your mistakes,” she told The Herald.

But others said the bill would give doctors unfair protection at the expense of patient rights. “Under current licensing regulations, hospitals and doctors are already required to inform patients of unexpected outcomes. They could likewise express sympathy,” said Miriam Weizenbaum, a Providence lawyer. “If the House were to pass this legislation, evidence would be excluded that belongs in a civil lawsuit, only to the detriment of patients.”

Donald Migliori ’88, also spoke against the bill, countering his brother Michael’s position. “‘I’m sorry’  is important, compassion is important,” he said. “Compassion is not what this bill addresses — it goes far beyond that.”

If implemented, the bill would strip the judiciary of its ability to decide what evidence belongs in the courtroom and, in doing so, provide doctors with unfair legal protection, Migliori said. If a carpenter built a house using the wrong type of nails, and the house fell down and crushed its inhabitants, the carpenter’s apology would be considered admissible evidence, he said. “The bill says for only doctors, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know what I was thinking’ should be protected as if the relationship between a doctor and a patient is somehow different from any other type of relationship.” The 36 other states with “I’m sorry” legislation enacted very different bills that do not penalize patients, Migliori told The Herald. “Not one state has this bill,” he said.

If the bill passes the House Committee on Judiciary and the Senate Committee on Judiciary, it will move to the General Assembly for a floor vote. Migliori said the process will likely take months.