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Courtroom dentistry: Why “I’m sorry” laws are gaining steam

Most medical professionals pride themselves on their ethics. They are trained in ethical management just as they are in clinical skills. Concepts such as confidentiality, justice, beneficence and veracity are emphasized throughout our schooling so that future clinicians can best serve their future patients. These ideals are challenged, especially in dentistry, when it comes to accepting culpability in medical accidents.

Indeed, with the percent of malpractice claims increasing at a faster rate than other medical professions, many dentists may feel reticent to divulge to patients any errors that may have occurred during a procedure. With the help of specialists such as a Fredericksburg medical malpractice lawyer, hopefully people report incidents like these even more so than before.

Medical malpractice cases are often complex and as a result, can become expensive for all parties involved. If you are contemplating filing suit for medical malpractice, but have concerns about the financial repercussions of doing so, you might want to do some research into lawsuit funding companies that can help you to manage your finances and consequently get your case off the ground.

An article published in the British Dental Journal last month explained that many lawsuits following dental treatment revolve around not revealing clinical errors or “failing to meet patient expectation.” These dentists, however, may have some of their worries lessened by the increasing prevalence of legislation colloquially termed “I’m Sorry” laws.

For background, more than 30 states have instituted some sort of “I’m Sorry” law. These laws aim at protecting clinicians from legal liability in a medical malpractice suit for expressing sympathy after a medical accident. The laws came as resolution for the conflict between the ethical duties of health care providers to inform patients of medical mistakes that occurred and the fear of expensive medical malpractice suits, as described in this AMA Journal of Ethics article. “I’m Sorry laws” enable–or even require, as in the case of a Florida state statute–clinicians to admit errors during medical procedures without the admission or sympathy being admissible in civil court proceedings.

Overall, there have been many positive changes since the induction of “I’m Sorry” laws. A hospital can cut liability costs and increase efficiency of care by pushing for more openness surrounding procedures, according to Doug Wojcieszak’s Sorry Works! Similarly, many argue that laws that protect open communication between a patient and a clinician reduce the number of medical malpractice suits. The American Medical Association claims many patients sue because they are confused by the outcome or feel that the clinician is not taking responsibility for their actions by maintaining such emotional distance. Allowing a medical professional to sympathize with their patients fosters better patient relationships and increases trust in the health care system. States vary in what may be permissible in court, however. Some, for example, allow medical professionals to apologize but consider the admission of fault to be allowed as evidence of liability. These laws can understandably be unclear to navigate.

Some argue that these “I’m Sorry” laws are unnecessary. They assert that if a clinician truly isn’t at fault, that will be proven in court. Unsurprisingly, most medical professionals and medical systems operators dispute this claim. They believe the time and money spent fighting a medical malpractice case could be utilized in more effective ways. Although the discussion continues on the moral need for this type of legislation, it is clear that these laws are becoming more popular. As more states and territories adopt these measures, they will inevitably affect most of us sometime in our future clinical careers.

~ Ryann Sypniewski, Columbia ’19

Ryann Sypniewski

Ryann is a second year dental student at Columbia. She is originally from Rochester, New York, and is currently living in New York City with her crazy dog and cat. She is part of her chapter's Predental Committee and has participated in numerous ASDA events over the past two years.

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