It is a fundamental core value of most people to apologize when a mistake has been made through their actions or choices. Saying, “I’m sorry” is considered by most to be an act or kindness and healing. But with medical malpractice suits continuing to loom in the shadows, some legal experts have shunned the practice of apologizing after a bad medical outcome.

The controversy of saying I’m sorry in the practice of medicine is nothing new. In the past it was common practice to avoid expressions of condolence or apology when something went wrong while practicing medicine. A National Review article describes this practice of defensive medicine as appearing indifferent or callous. The fear is, of course, that if a physician apologizes or attempts to comfort, they are admitting guilt and exposing themselves to liability.

More recent explorations of this type of circumstance offer a different perspective. When a physician pursues a deny and defend model to address a bad outcome, the likelihood of contentious litigation increases. Back in 2017, the American Medical Association addressed this by stating that “A structured communication and resolution program can help identify necessary patient safety improvements while also improving communication with patients without a resulting increase in litigation. The programs help foster a culture of safety and transparency in a blame-free environment rather than the confrontational litigation route,” said Carl A. Sirio, MD, a member of the AMA Board of Trustees.

States have also been weighing in on the issue of doctors apologizing and whether these types of statements can be held against them in a court of law. In many instances, states have enacted laws protecting this type of communication to encourage sympathy and compassion on the part of the caregiver. Since these laws vary widely, it is important for every physician to have a conversation with their legal representation before anything occurs. It’s never a bad idea to understand where your state stands on this issue so that you can cultivate the best communication with your patients while safeguarding your rights as a practitioner.