Apologies prescribed: A new state law lets health care workers be kind

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The Emily Post Institute, which carries on the polite work of America's etiquette maven, has this to say about apologies: "Making and accepting apologies gracefully are acts of courtesy and maturity, and they are important for matters both big and small. Sincere apologies can defuse volatile situations ... 'I'm sorry' is also one of the simplest and often kindest ways to express sympathy or regret."

That's wise advice, but one that doctors and other medical professionals with aggrieved patients have been reluctant to follow -- and for good reason. In a litigious culture, saying you're sorry risks having your words brought up in court as an admission of wrongdoing, not as the decent gesture intended.

That perverse restraint on the natural impulse to be kind -- which leads many into health care in the first place -- will be a thing of the past in 60 days, thanks to state Senate Bill 379.

It's a rare piece of legislation that has unanimous support in Harrisburg, but that was the case here. Supported by the Pennsylvania Medical Society and the Pennsylvania Association for Justice, a trial lawyers group, the bill passed both the Senate and the House of Representatives with the support of Republicans and Democrats. Gov. Tom Corbett, who championed the idea in his "Healthy Pennsylvania" initiative in September, had a ceremonial signing of the bill in advance of the formal signing Friday.

The genius of the measure is that it strikes a reasonable compromise. It allows health care professionals to make a "benevolent gesture" -- defined as "any action, conduct, statement or gesture that conveys a sense of apology, condolence ... emanating from humane impulses" -- to be inadmissible as evidence of liability. But this protection does not apply to any "statement or statements of negligence or fault pertaining to an accident or event."

In other words, if health care professionals keep their apologies simple and kind in the spirit of Emily Post, they should have no problem saying what their patients want to hear. And that may even defuse volatile situations, including potential lawsuits.

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