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Considering physician expressions of sympathy vs. admissions of fault

A heartfelt apology, as everyone knows, can go a long way toward resolving a dispute. This is certainly true in relationships with friends and family, and it also seems to be true in patient-provider relations. That, at least, is the experience of hospitals that have introduced enhanced communication and resolution programs which encourage physicians to have a heart-to-heart discussion with patients who have suffered a bad outcome.

The idea is a fairly simple one: when physicians take the time to connect with a patient, express sympathy and offer an apology when something has gone wrong, the patient is less likely to be left with hard feelings which ripen into medical malpractice litigation. A number of states, noting the benefit, have passed laws which prevent physician apologies from being used as evidence against them in medical malpractice litigation. 

Mississippi is not among the states which have a statute explicitly protecting physicians from having sympathetic communications to patients used against them in court. To take an example of a state which does, Missouri’s statute specifically makes inadmissible the portions of statements, writings and benevolent gestures expressing sympathy and benevolence to patients and their family members.

Though Missouri does not have such a statute, statements of fault which are part of, or in addition to, sympathetic communications and gestures are not necessarily always going to be admissible in medical malpractice litigation. It depends how the statements fall within the framework of the rules of evidence. We’ll look at this issue in our next post.

Source: Mo. Rev. Stat. Section 538.229

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