What “Snarky Doctors” Missed About Vanderbilt Apology Law Study

VandyRecently, a team of Vanderbilt University researchers produced a study on apology laws that said, in short, apology laws either have no impact on medical liability risk and may even increase the risk of malpractice litigation for some physicians. As you can imagine, the study received ample media attention, and social media lit up with “snarky doctors” proclaiming, “See I told you so…apologizing is just going to get me sued…stupid idea!”

Here is what most media outlets and all of the snarky doctors missed about the Vanderbilt study….and I am quoting directly from the study:

“The evidence presented here strongly suggests that apology laws are not substitutes for specific physician disclosure programs and that the experiences of these types of programs are not generalizable to the physician population at large. In other words, simply being allowed to apologize is not enough to reduce malpractice risk. Physicians likely benefit from being trained when to apologize and what to say when apologizing as part of a specific physician disclosure program. Additionally, these programs often include an early settlement offer, which physicians apologizing outside of these programs may not provide. This early settlement offer may be the key to discouraging lawsuits, especially if apologies themselves contain a signal that malpractice has occurred. Similarly, the results here suggest that AHRQ’s CANDOR process, which promotes physician-patient communication and disclosure of adverse events, may be a better means to achieve the goals of apology laws, as these laws do not promote apologies but do not provide physicians with any instruction on how to communicate with patients.”

This is basically what we’ve said all along at Sorry Works!…to be successful at disclosure, you need a disclosure PROGRAM within a hospital, insurer, or nursing home. Apology laws can make docs feel more comfortable about talking post-event, but, as the Vanderbilt paper said, you need a program where clinicians are trained and leadership is equipped and able to offer early settlement offers for cases of true error. Moreover, some of the best disclosure programs in the United States (University of Illinois Medical Center, University of Michigan, MedStar) have operated successfully without apology laws.  Finally, some of the new/2nd generation apology laws (see Mass, Oregon, and hopefully Maryland) require the development of disclosure programs within healthcare organizations in order to receive apology immunity. 

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