"I'm Sorry" - A Proposed Law May Help Michigan Doctors Have Candid Talks With Families

State Representative Jim Marleau has introduced a bill that would allow doctors in Michigan to apologize to a patient or the patient’s family, without that apology being used against them in court. Marleau cites a policy used at the University of Michigan involving physician disclosure and apologies as evidence that apologies work. He’d like to allow all doctors in the state of Michigan the opportunity to connect with families more freely. Admissions of negligence would not be covered by the proposed legislation.

The bill has been introduced before but never gathered enough support to make it through the Legislature. Rep. Marleau hopes the national debate on health care reform and reducing the cost of health care will give the bill the additional support needed to make it through this time.

Some Michigan physicians support doctors being candid with families and patients. The Detroit Free Press quoted Dr. Joe Schwarz, a Battle Creek ear-nose-and-throat surgeon as stating that he has “never had blowback” in court from being candid with people.

The University of Michigan’s top attorney Richard Boothman stated in a 2009 journal article that the University’s policy has coincided with a 40% reduction in the number of new lawsuits filed by patients, cutting litigation costs in half. An added benefit of U of M’s model is that there is an added focus on correcting mistakes and implementing new policies and procedures so the problem doesn’t focus again. This way, the focus remains on providing the highest quality of care possible to the greatest number of people, not just saying “I’m sorry” to calm down a patient or family member.

Jesse Green of the Michigan Association for Justice, however, warns that any such changes in the law in Michigan may be meaningless if insurance companies do not change the language they use in physician malpractice policies that prohibits apologies. Ultimately, families want closure, noted Rep. Marleau. This means that all obstacles to closure must be removed to foster a system that recognizes the personal aspects of medical care. If doctors can say I’m sorry, and it leads to a more scrutinized look at practices and how they affect people’s health and well-being, we all benefit.