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Can a Doctor’s or Surgeon’s Apology Be Considered an Admission of Medical Malpractice?

March 11, 2024

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Proving medical malpractice is notoriously difficult. That’s because every patient is different, and bad outcomes can happen even when doctors, surgeons, and other healthcare providers are thorough, attentive, and follow all protocols and guidelines when treating patients.

In addition to being difficult to prove, doctors, surgeons, and other providers rarely admit to malpractice when it happens. However, they often apologize to patients for various unpleasant aspects of medical treatment. In some patients’ eyes, these apologies may constitute an admission of malpractice, especially if they suffered adverse or unexpected outcomes during treatment.

If your or your loved one’s healthcare provider apologized after a poor health outcome, here’s what you need to know about their apology and whether it can be used as evidence in a medical malpractice claim.

Ohio’s Apology Statute Means Most Apologies Can’t Be Used as Evidence in Malpractice Claims

Ohio's apology statute, Ohio Revised Code Section 2317.43, is a legal provision designed to encourage open communication between healthcare providers and patients by ensuring that certain statements made by healthcare providers cannot be used as evidence of liability in a medical malpractice lawsuit.

The key points to know about Ohio's apology statute are:

  • Protection for Apologies and Sympathetic Gestures: Ohio's law says that if a doctor or any medical staff member says they're sorry or shows they feel bad about a patient's suffering, pain, or injury after treatment, those words or actions can't be used in court to claim that the doctor or staff member is at fault or responsible for what happened.
  • Objective of the Law: The aim of Ohio’s apology statute is to allow healthcare providers to communicate openly with patients and their families without fear that their words of sympathy or regret will be used against them in court. This is based on the understanding that such communications can aid in healing and may reduce the likelihood of a lawsuit being filed.
  • Limitation of the Law: It's important to note that the protection applies to statements of sympathy or expressions of apology, but does not extend to statements that explicitly admit fault, negligence, or culpable conduct.

When Might Doctors or Surgeons Apologize to Patients Who Suffered Bad Outcomes?

Doctors or surgeons might apologize to patients for bad outcomes in various situations, often as a part of compassionate communication or to express empathy.

While the specific circumstances for apologies from healthcare providers to patients can vary, common scenarios where apologies occur in healthcare settings can include:

  • Surgical Complications: Even with successful surgeries, complications can arise, such as infections, bad reactions to anesthesia, or unexpected bleeding. Surgeons might apologize for these unforeseen outcomes and discuss the ways to address them.
  • Treatment Side Effects: Some major treatments, especially those designed to treat cancer like chemotherapy or radiation, can have severely unpleasant side effects. Doctors might apologize for the distress or discomfort caused by these side effects, even if the treatment was necessary.
  • Poor Communication or Misunderstandings: Sometimes, misunderstandings between the healthcare provider and the patient about the expected outcomes of a treatment or procedure can lead to dissatisfaction. Doctors might apologize for any confusion or miscommunication.
  • Long Wait Times or Administrative Issues: Issues like delays in scheduling, long wait times, or insurance complications can be frustrating for patients. Healthcare providers might apologize for these system-related issues, even if they are not directly at fault.

In many of these above scenarios, an apology does not necessarily mean the doctor or surgeon made a mistake or is legally at fault. It can be a way of expressing empathy and maintaining a trusting, communicative doctor-patient relationship.

When Can a Doctor’s or Surgeon’s Apology Be Used in a Medical Malpractice Claim?

As mentioned above, Ohio’s apology statute protects doctors, surgeons, and other healthcare providers from having sympathetic statements made to patients used against them. However, it does not protect them from having sympathetic statements that include admissions of fault used against them.

For instance, if during their apology, the healthcare provider explicitly acknowledges a mistake or negligence, such as saying, "I made an error during the procedure," or "It was my fault that the medication was incorrect," those statements can be interpreted as admissions of liability.

In such cases, the apology goes beyond expressing sympathy or regret for the patient's suffering and directly admits responsibility for the harm or injury. It's these types of admissions, rather than general expressions of sorrow or regret, that can be used as evidence in a medical malpractice lawsuit.

Contact Our Ohio Medical Malpractice Lawyers for a Free Consultation

Bad outcomes are unfortunately more common than many people think in the medical field. And while most of those bad outcomes are due to factors that doctors, surgeons, and other healthcare providers couldn’t possibly have foreseen or prevented, some of them are due to negligence.

If you suspect that your or your loved one’s bad outcome is due to negligence, whether or not the healthcare provider admitted to it, we want to hear from you. The Cleveland medical malpractice attorneys at Nurenberg, Paris, Heller & McCarthy have decades of experience building successful malpractice claims for countless injured patients, and we want to hear your story, too. Contact us anytime for a free case review to learn how we can help.

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